The FedExCup has produced a string of champions in recent years who were not the PGA Tour’s top player the year they won.
Of the four FedExCup champions from 2011-14, all of whom earned that title thanks to a victory in the Tour Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club, only one began the Playoffs in the top 10 on the points list.
Billy Horschel, the 2014 FedExCup champion, was 69th in the standings coming into the Playoffs and 82nd after missing the cut in the Barclays, the Playoffs opener. But as Henrik Stenson the previous year and Brandt Snedeker (to a lesser extent) in 2012, Horschel got hot at the right time, tying for second in the Deutsche Bank Championship and winning the BMW Championship before capping off his torrid season-ending stretch with a victory at East Lake.
Until Jason Day put together a remarkable run of sensational play in the latter stages of the 2015 PGA Tour season, the year belonged to Jordan Spieth, who won the Masters and U.S. Open before reaching his 22nd birthday.
Spieth made a spirited bid for a calendar year Grand Slam, finishing one shot out of a playoff in the British Open and placing second in the PGA Championship behind Day, who won four times in six starts including two of the first three Playoffs events.
Day’s late-season surge moved him into Player of the Year consideration along with Spieth. But the potential debate over that honor was silenced when Spieth closed out his monster 2015 season with a victory in the Tour Championship, which also gave him the FedExCup title and the No. 1 spot in the World Golf Ranking, which has been going back and forth among Spieth, Day and Rory McIlroy.
With his win at East Lake, Spieth put the finishing touches on one of the best seasons in PGA Tour history, approaching many of those produced by Tiger Woods during his decade-plus span of dominance.
Spieth finished the 2015 season with five wins, four runner-up finishes, one third place showing and two ties for fourth, ending up one shot out of a playoff on both occasions, one of them in the British Open. He had 15 top-10 finishes in 25 starts, and wound up with more than $12 million in earnings, breaking Woods’ former mark by more than $1 million. He also took home $10 million in bonus money for winning the FedExCup, joining Woods as the only player to finish as the points leader during the season before winning both the Tour Championship and FedExCup title.
After his victory at East Lake, Spieth tried to summarize his spectacular season, but did not have as much success in that regard as he did on the course earlier that day.
“It’s hard for me to compare it to anybody’s past seasons. It’s the greatest season I’ve ever had, obviously. But it’s one where I believe we took our game on course and off course to a level that I didn’t think would be possible.
“I believed that we could get to this position where we’re at right now. But there’s plenty of times when you feel so poorly with the putter or you’re not hitting any fairways with the driver, or you sit back and think how in the world does somebody do this.
“Then you kind of get into some momentum, you get into a groove, and it happens. And that’s what this season did; it proved that we can maintain that high level throughout the year, even when a couple of weeks get off, you can get it back quickly. I know that we can play at this level, even when we don’t have our best stuff.”
Spieth wound up with a 4-shot margin of victory in the Tour Championship after spending most of the first three rounds in pursuit of Stenson, who won the Tour Championship and FedExCup in 2013, his only prior appearance at East Lake.
Stenson came into the Tour Championship after consecutive finishes of second, second and 10th in the first three Playoffs events, similar to what he did in 2013. He was fourth in the FedExCup standings coming into the Tour Championship, trailing only Day, Spieth and Deutsche Bank winner Rickie Fowler.
Through 12 holes in the opening round, Stenson was 8-under and in range of a possible 59, but settled for a 63 to lead Paul Casey by two. Spieth was five back in a tie for fifth at 68. Spieeth closed within three of Stenson’s lead after a bogey-free 66 in the second round, moving into second place and earning a third round pairing with the leader.
After nine mostly uneventful holes, Stenson still held a 3-shot lead over Spieth, but back-to-back Stenson bogeys at 10 and 11 reduced Spieth’s deficit to one. Stenson’s bogey at the 17th cost him the outright lead, and when Spieth birdied the par-3 18th for a second straight day, he claimed the lead for the first time in the tournament after shooting 68 to Stenson’s 72.
The two were again paired in the final group Sunday, with Fowler and Casey four shots back of Spieth in a tie for third. Although a handful of players mounted final round rallies, Spieth and Stenson remained clear of their pursuers and shared the lead late on the opening nine before Spieth displayed why he was the No. 1-ranked putter on the PGA Tour in 2015.
Spieth rolled in a 10-footer for birdie at the par-3 second to move two ahead of Stenson, but fell back into a tie with bogeys at 5 and 6. Spieth missed the green on the long, par-4 fifth, which yielded only three birdies all week, none in the final round when the wet conditions made the hole play even longer than normal. A rare three-putt at the sixth dropped the two into a tie, but thanks to Spieth’s deadly putting touch, the tie did not last long.
Stenson missed the eighth fairway and did well to get his second shot into the deep front bunker short of the green. Spieth took advantage by rolling in a 20-footer for birdie, and Stenson missed his par attempt of less than six feet to lose two shots on the hole.
It looked like Stenson might cut into Spieth’s lead at nine after sticking his wedge approach to the par 5 within two feet of the cup. But Spieth nailed an 18-footer to match Stenson’s birdie.
Both players missed the green on the 10th, like the fifth a par 5 converted into a par 4 for the tournament, and made bogey. Stenson again threatened to reduce Spieth’s lead when he landed his tee shot within four feet on the par-3 11th, but Spieth again thwarted Stenson’s attempt to rally, holing a bomb of more than 45 feet.
Another Stenson bogey at 12 increased Spieth’s lead to three, and Stenson was unable to exert any pressure after that. Spieth holed a pair of clutch par putts at 15 and 16 to maintain his lead, and when a dejected Stenson made double bogey after a terrible approach shot to the 17th, the last obstacle to Spieth’s crowning achievement was swept away.
Stenson holed a thoroughly unexpected 57-footer for birdie from across the 18th green to grab a share of second with Danny Lee and Justin Rose at 5-under. Spieth closed with a 69, his fourth straight round in the 60s, for a winning total of 9-under 271. Lee and Rose both carded seven birdies the final day, with both turning in 4-under 31. Lee shot 65, with Rose posting a 66 despite a wildy errant tee shot on the 10th that went out of bounds and resulted in a double bogey.
Casey closed with a 70 to tie for fifth at 276 with big hitters Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson. Watson shot 68-67 on the weekend, while Johnson played his final 11 holes Sunday in 7-under for a 64, the best round of the day and the second lowest of the tournament.
Zach Johnson tied for eighth at 277 and was joined in the top 10 by fellow St. Simons Island resident Matt Kuchar, who tied Day for 10th at 278,
Stenson’s unlikely birdie at the 18th enabled him to move past Day in the final FedExCup standings, a $1 million difference in bonus money, and was worth almost $300,000 for his three-way tie for second, as opposed to a possible four-way tie for fourth.
Spieth collected $1.485 million from the purse of $8.25 million, making for an almost $11.5 million payday. Spieth contended in his first start at East Lake two years ago, closing with a final round 64 to tie for second, three shots behind Stenson.
“I think of East Lake as one of the best golf courses we play all year,” Spieth said. “So it’s really incredible to get a victory on one of the greatest courses in the world (Augusta National) and then another on one of the greatest courses that we play all season.”
Spieth was particularly proud of the way he quickly rebounded from what he considered his two lowest points of the season. Shortly after winning the Masters, he missed the cut in the Players, but bounced back to almost win at both Colonial and Memorial before his U.S. Open triumph.
He opened the Playoffs with back-to-back missed cuts and faded on the weekend in the third Playoffs event after being tied for third after 36 holes.
“It gives me a lot of confidence to know that if I remain healthy, that even when things are poor, we can get back to this level quickly, and that’s what we showed in the Playoffs.”