The 2018 Tour Championship will feature a typically world class field, with the two stars who have shined the longest and the brightest among this era’s constellation of professional golfers back at East Lake together for the first time in five years.
Tiger Woods played a full schedule this season for the first time since 2013, and returns to East Lake for just the third time since 2010 after a successful comeback season following back surgery that finally enabled him to resume his career.
Phil Mickelson, who has played in the Tour Championship at East Lake more than any other player and is the only golfer to win it twice in Atlanta, is also back in the field after qualifying just once since 2013.
Golf’s two biggest names headline a power-packed field that includes 11 of the 12 American Ryder Cup team members and half the European squad, with only a handful of prominent individuals missing from the 30 who qualified for the FedExCup Playoffs finale.
Although both Woods and Mickelson have realistic hopes of adding the Tour Championship to their long lists of career titles, neither is likely to claim the $10 million prize for finishing first in the final FedExCup standings.
Mickelson comes into the Tour Championship 14th in the standings after standing ninth two weeks into the Playoffs following a pair of top-15 finishes. Woods is 20th after a tie for sixth in the third Playoffs event, the same spot he held at the end of the regular season following strong attempts to win both the British Open and PGA Championship.
Woods is looking for his first victory since winning five times in 2013. Mickelson ended a long drought when he won the WGC event in Mexico this spring, his first victory since the 2013 British Open.
The two players were the dominant figures at East Lake during the first decade of the 21st century, although both skipped the Tour Championship when it was played at the end of the season in early November, pre-FedExCup.
Mickelson won at East Lake in 2000 and 2009, ands was a major part of one of the most memorable finishes in tournament history, finishing one shot out of a playoff in ’08.
Woods dominated the 2007 Tour Championship, the first of the FedExCup era and the last time the tournament was played before East Lake changed its putting surfaces. He also finished second four times between 2000 and ’09, including both years when Mickelson won after trailing Woods heading to the final round.
Neither player has contended since Mickelson took down Tiger with a final round 65 in 2009, and given the quality of the field this year, it’s a distinct possibility that the two 40-something veterans will not be part of the final round drama on Sunday.
It is impossible to designate a pre-tournament favorite because so many of golf’s current crop of standouts are enjoying outstanding seasons and are serious contenders for the $10 million bonus.
Bryson DeChambeau comes in at No. 1 in the standings after back-to-back wins in the first two Playoffs events in New Jersey and Boston. DeChambeau was ninth in his second full season on tour after scoring the second victory of his brief career in the Memorial. This will be his first start at East Lake, one of six “rookies” in the field.
After his weather-delayed playoff loss earlier this week in Philadelphia, England’s Justin Rose is up to second in the standings. Rose tied for second in the British Open and was second behind DeChambeau in the Playoffs event in Boston, scoring his lone 2018 victory at Colonial. He has a pair of runner-up finishes at East Lake in 2012 and ’15, and has placed in top 10 the last five times he has played there.
Despite not winning a tournament in 2018, Tony Finau is third in the standings thanks to eight top 10s during the regular season – three in majors – and finishes of second, fourth and eighth in the Playoffs. Finau, whose lone PGA Tour win came in an opposite field event in 2016, was the last captain’s pick to the Ryder Cup team earlier this week. He tied for seventh in his first start at East Lake last year.
Dustin Johnson won three times in 2018 and ended the regular season Ni. 1 on the points list, but has slipped to fourth despite solid showings the first two weeks of the Playoffs. Johnson will be playing at East Lake for the ninth time in the last 10 years and had consecutive finishes of fifth, fifth and sixth in 2013, ’15 and ’16.
The fifth player who is guaranteed of taking home the FedExCup if he wins at East Lake is Justin Thomas, who also won three times during the regular season to finish second behind Johnson. Thomas also had two solid showings in the Playoffs, and comes into East Lake fifth in the standings. He was second by a shot in the Tour Championship last year after tying for sixth in his debut in 2016.
The rest of the top 10 consists of two players who had big years in 2018 and three others who were outside the top 40 coming into the Playoffs.
Brooks Koepka successfully defended his 2017 U.S, Open title and followed with a win in the PGA Championship to finish the season third in the standings. Even with three straight top-20 finishes in the Playoffs, he has fallen outside the top five into seventh place. Koepka was sixth in his second start at East Lake last year.
With three wins in 2018, Bubba Watson was fifth on the regular season points list, but has slipped to eighth after a pair of solid Playoffs showings in Boston and Philly. This will be Watson’s eighth appearance in the Tour Championship. He tied for fifth in 2012 and ’15 and was T10 in ’16, but did not qualify last year.
After winning three times in his first two seasons on tour, Keegan Bradley scored his first victory since 2012 earlier this week in a playoff in Philadelphia to jump from 52nd in the standings to sixth. Bradley, who won the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club during his rookie season, qualified for the Tour Championship after each of his first three seasons with a pair of near-tip 10 finishes.
Billy Horschel was 41st during the regular season, but on the strength of a pair of third place finishes in the Playoffs, is up to ninth. Horschel qualified for the Tour Championship in 2013 and ’14, tying for seventh in his debut and winning the next year to take the FedExCup thanks to victories in the final two Playoffs events.
The least known player in the Tour Championship is 25-year-old Australian Cameron Smith, who jumped from 53rd in the regular season to 10th thanks to consecutive third place showings in Boston and Philly. Smith played his way onto the PGA Tour in 2015, with his only victory in three full seasons coming in the 2017 team event in New Orleans. This is his Tour Championship debut.
Players ranked between 11 and 20 include major champions Webb Simpson, Jason Day, Francesco Molinari (2018 British), Patrick Reed (2018 Masters), Rory McIlroy, Mickelson and Woods.
Simpson has a pair of top-5 finishes in five starts at East Lake, with Day having two showings of sixth or better in seven appearances. Molinari is playing in the Tour Championship for the first time, while Reed has not had much success in Atlanta, qualifying the last four years with a T13 in 2017 his best finish.
McIlroy had to go four holes to win the Tour Championship in 2016 after tying for second two years ago. Xander Schauffele won in his East Lake debut last year to cap an outstanding rookie season. Both players had top-5 finishes in Philadelphia, with Schauffele jumping from 41st in the standings to 18th after coming up one shot short of the Bradley-Rose playoff.
Patrick Cantlay is making his second start in the Tour Championship and Englishman Tommy Fleetwood is one of six first-timers after an excellent season, his first as a PGA Tour member. Given his efforts in big events, Fleetwood is a definite threat to win for the first time in the U.S.
The players between 21 and 30 don’t have much hope of capturing the FedExCup title, but there are several strong contenders for the Tour Championship among that group.
Rickie Fowler, runner-up to Reed in the Masters, has played consistent golf in recent months despite an injury that kept him out of the first two Playoffs events. He has one top 10 in four Tour Championship starts, and is coming off a T8 finish in Philadelphia.
Spaniard Jon Rahm tied for seventh in his East Lake debut last year, but has had an inconsistent 2018 with two top 5s in majors and two missed cuts. He has dropped from 13 at the end of the regular season to 24th.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama did not play up to his standards in 2018, but has three straight top 15s in the Playoffs, including a T4 in Boston. He was 76th in the regular season, but qualified for the Tour Championship for a fifth time. His best finish at East Lake is fifth in 2016.
England’s Paul Casey has finished either fourth or fifth in all four of his starts at East Lake, including a tie for fifth last year after holding the 54-hole lead. He won earlier this year in Tampa, his first victory in the U.S. since 2009.
Gary Woodland has a pair of top-10 finishes in five starts at East Lake, and locked down his spot in the Tour Championship with a solid showing in Philadelphia.
Kevin Na is coming off a pair of top 15s in the Playoffs, but has never placed in the top 15 in five starts at East Lake. Australia’s Marc Leishman, who narrowly held on to his spot in the top 30, also has struggled in the Tour Championship, but his appearance last year was his first since 2009. Kyle Stanley made his East Lake debut in 2017 and tied for 10th after leading after the first round with a 64.
Aaron Wise will attempt to duplicate Schauffele’s 2017 performance by winning the Tour Championship to conclude a Rookie of the Year season with his second PGA victory. Wise has played well of late, which cannot be said for Patton Kizzire, who won two of the first 10 events on the 2017-18 schedule, but has done nothing since, dropping from 15th at the end of the regular season to 30th coming to East Lake.
Had Jordan Spieth played better in Philadelphia, Kizzire would not have qualified for the Tour Championship, but Spieth missed making it to East Lake for the first time, finishing the season 31st.
European Ryder Cuppers Henrik Stenson, Alex Noren, Ian Poulter and Tyrrell Hatton also failed to qualify for the Tour Championship and will take a break before the upcoming matches along with Spieth.
The Tour Championship will be played Sept. 20-23. The tournament will be broadcast Thursday and Friday on Golf Channel, which will also have the early weekend coverage. NBC will broadcast the final two rounds.