After playing the Tour Championship 15 times at East Lake with the course’s original routing, the decision was made by tournament officials and the PGA Tour to reverse the nines for the 2016 event.
The result was perhaps the most exciting finish in tournament history, as Rory McIlroy captured a three-way playoff that last four holes with a string of late heroics that earned him $11,530,000 and two trophies, one for the event and one for the season-long FedExCup.
For the first 15 holes of the final round, McIlroy held steady at either two or three shots behind leader Kevin Chappell, who shared the lead with Ryan Moore midway through the round before moving back on top with a birdie at the 13th, formerly the fourth hole at East Lake before the nines were reversed prior to this year’s tournament.
From that point, McIlroy produced a succession of highlight reel shots, beginning with a hole-out for eagle on from 137 yards on the par-4 16th. That pulled him within one of the lead, but Chappell pulled ahead by two for the first time all day when he hit his approach on the 16th to five feet and holed the putt for his sixth birdie of the day.
Chappell fell back into a tie with Moore when he went from rough to sand for a bogey at the 17th after Moore birdied the hole minutes earlier. Needing a birdie at the 18th to have a chance, McIlroy nearly holed his bunker shot for eagle, while both Moore and Chappell had to lay up after driving in the thick Bermuda rough left of the 18th fairway.
Moore had a chance to win in regulation, but lipped out an 8-footer for birdie, with Chappell unable to give himself a quality birdie chance for a possible victory, which would have been the first of his PGA Tour career.
Chappell and Moore again drove in the left rough on the 18th – the first playoff hole – and had to lay up, while McIlroy hit a massive drive of 357 yards just into the rough at the end of the fairway. McIlroy followed with a glorious iron shot from 210 yards that left him with only six feet for eagle and the victory, but he suffered the same fate as Moore in regulation, grazing the right lip.
Moore stayed alive when he holed his birdie putt of just inside 10 feet after Chappell missed his birdie try from long range.
McIlroy and Moore returned to the 18th tee for a second extra hole, with both going left off the tee into trouble. Moore had to pitch out short of the water and managed to get his third shot from 227 yards on the front of the green, two-putting for par. McIlroy hit his second shot under branches to leave himself with a third shot of some 50 yards, but came up well short with his pitch and matched Moore’s par.
The playoff moved to the nearby island green, par-3 15th, with McIlroy holing a 7-footer for par after Moore nicely extricated himself from a gnarly lie with a deft pitch from just off the green.
After a poor chip at the 16th left him 17 feet for par, Moore holed the putt that could have extended the playoff for another hole. But McIlroy drilled his birdie attempt from a few feet closer to end the championship with daylight less than half an hour away from becoming an issue.
The three playoff participants finished with totals of 12-under 268 at East Lake, which played firm and fast for the entire tournament. The course was in superb shape and did not receive a drop of rain the entire week.
McIlroy and Moore, who were paired together in the final group on Sunday, began the day two shots off the lead shared by Chappell and FedExCup points leader Dustin Johnson. McIlroy and Moore both shot 64, the low rounds of the week, to catch Chappell, who closed with a 66.
Johnson, who is a lock for Player of the Year honors, remained tied with Chappell early in the final round, but bogeys at holes 5, 6 and 8 after errant tee shots cost him a share of the lead. He did not make a birdie after the seventh and sealed his fate with an ugly double bogey at the short par-4 12th, one of the easiest holes on the course.
On a day when three players shot 64, three shot 65 and only four other players failed to match or better par of 70, Johnson turned in the highest score, a 73 that dropped him into a tie for sixth at 275, seven out of the playoff.
Paul Casey, who matched McIlroy and Moore with a final round 64, wrapped up his successful if non-winning run through the Playoffs, placing fourth at 271. Hideki Matsuyama was fifth at 274 after making a double bogey on the par-5 18th, with Justin Thomas tying for sixth with Johnson at 275. Adam Scott, who shot 65 on Sunday, and Jason Dufner were next at 276, with five players tying for 10th at 278.
Among the five was Bubba Watson, who shot 66-67 the final two rounds but was snubbed for the final Ryder Cup selection despite being the highest ranked player in the Ryder Cup points standings not to make the team and the No. 7-ranked player in the world.
After a mostly sub-standard 2016 season by his standards, McIlroy came into the Playoffs ranked 36th in the FedExCup standings. But he won Labor Day weekend in Boston with a final round 65 to finish three in front of Casey, and was sixth in the standings coming to East Lake after ordinary showings in the other two Playoffs events.
“There was a lot of things that had to go right for me today,” McIlroy said after his victory. “Ryan didn’t birdie the last in regulation, neither did Kevin. Obviously, D.J. didn’t have his best day. So everything just sort of aligned for me. I took advantage of that opportunity.”
McIlroy’s 2016 season pre-Playoffs was better than his critics’ observations, but included just one win in the irish Open. He had four top-4 finishes in the U.S., including the Match Play Championship and Doral, and tied for fifth in the British Open. But he played himself out of contention in the Masters and Players with poor third rounds and missed the cut in both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.
“It was nice to just set the reset button after the PGA,” McIlroy said. “I think the great thing about this FedExCup is you have something to play for after the major season. You have goals, you have ambition, you have drive to work hard for something else, and I really wanted to try to at least give myself a chance in these playoffs.”
McIlroy had to survive some shaky play on the front nine the first two days to remain in contention. He shot 68 on Thursday despite back-to-back double bogeys on holes 7 and 8, offsetting them with seven birdies, including four in a row on holes 12 to 15. He made four bogeys on the front the next day to shoot 38, but three birdies on the back enabled him to end the day at even par. Three birdies on his last six holes Saturday resulted in a bogey-free 66 and got him within two of the lead heading to the final round.
In his three previous appearances at East Lake, McIlroy’s best finish was a tie for second in 2014, three behind Billy Horschel.
Moore had played in the Tour Championship twice before, with his best showing a tie for third in 2012, the last time he competed at East Lake. He improved two shots each day of the tournament with scores of 70-68-66-64. He moved into contention with a 31 on the front nine Saturday, and again shot 31 going out Sunday to tie Chappell for the lead.
“Really just two great rounds in a row on the weekend to shoot 66-64 on this track,” Moore said. “I did everything I could. I hit every golf shot as good as I possibly could today. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. It was a great battle all day back and forth between (Rory) and I and Kevin.”
Moore earned his first Ryder Cup selection with a strong finish that included a win in the John Deere, his fifth title since 2009, and top 10s in the first two Playoffs events. His major championship record, however, was forgettable, with a tie for 32nd in the U.S. Open his best finish.
Chappell closed out his career-best 2015-16 season with a fourth runner-up finish, his first coming last Fall in the RSM Classic at Sea Island GC. His other two solo seconds came this year, both behind Jason Day at Bay Hill and the Players, along with a T4 in Texas and T3 in the WGC event at Firestone.
Earlier in the Playoffs, Chappell was among the leaders for 36 holes in Boston, before an unproductive weekend dropped him into a tie for eighth.
Chappell went to the front early at East Lake and stayed there the entire week with some consistently excellent play. He shared the first round lead with Johnson and Matsuyama at 66, carding four birdies on the front nine before closing with nine straight pars. He was one back of Johnson after 36, shooting 68 on Friday with three straight birdies at 6, 7 and 8 and a bogey at the 11th, the only blemish on his card for 54 holes.
A second straight 68 on Saturday gave Chappell a share of the 54-hole lead with Johnson, with his scorecard including 16 pars, 11 in succession to start the round. He never gave up the lead the final day, shooting 66 with six birdies. He made one early bogey and one costly one late.
“I can’t be negative, even if I want to be,” Chappell said after his playoff loss. “I made three bogeys all week, four rounds in the 60s at East Lake. Finished wherever I finished in the FedExCup (8th). It was a good year. That’s the way I’m going to look at it.
“I’m proud of the way I fought. It just wasn’t enough today.”
The biggest surprise the final day was Johnson’s sub-par showing. He still could have ended up with the FedExCup title and a $10 million bonus if either Moore or Chappell won the playoff, but came away with a disappointing finish to an otherwise exceptional season that including wins in the U.S. Open, WGC event at Firestone and the Playoffs tournament at Crooked Stick. He finished the year with 15 top-10s fin 22 starts and approached $10 in earnings not including his multi-million bonus for placing second in the final FedExCup standings.