Matt Cooper takes a look at the final event of the 2020/21 PGA Tour season.
The FedExCup Playoffs, apart from being a nightmare to type and read, have never quite taken off in the manner the PGA Tour might have hoped for. They were created with a two-fold mandate: the first to produce a dramatic finale to the season, one that felt like a genuine conclusion rather than merely another week of strokeplay; the second was to get the season done and dusted before the attention of the casual sports fan was distracted by the start of the NFL.
As so often with the meddling of the money and marketing men, it is ultimately not their tweaks, but good stories that drive interest and in the past fortnight we’ve witnessed two of golf’s finest in recent times.
Two weeks ago, we had the long-awaited second PGA Tour victory for Tony Finau. If golf were pantomime, then this was moment Prince Charming wandered off into the sunset with Cinderella. Act two, last week in Baltimore, was all about golf’s pantomime villain – Bryson DeChambeau.
Viewed through one prism, his epic final round duel with Patrick Cantlay on Sunday, once which stretched into six extra holes, really was the purest pantomime, a clash between the baddie big-hitter and the gritty underdog with a small but deadly weapon (his putter). But those on the ground reported ugly under-currents outside the ropes – less “he’s behind you!” than nasty, boorish name-calling. It was also more than apparent that Cantlay and DeChambeau didn’t have much time for one another.
Wow…..what a day! ???? pic.twitter.com/dKE1RJWlYC
— Patrick Cantlay (@patrick_cantlay) August 30, 2021
It’s a bit of a sad demise for the DeChambeau narrative. Initially an entertaining prattler of scientific gobbledy-gook, his social awkwardness and earnest nature first prompted sniggering and then aroused the straightforward disdain of Brooks Koepka. Now the galleries are ridiculing him and it’s all a little bit ugly. America’s Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker is probably none too giddy about the drama either because it clearly threatens the equilibrium of his side.
Quite a kerfuffle, therefore, and that’s before we’ve even introduced the subject of this week’s scoring.
To win the Tour Championship – Tony Finau at +750
As last year, we have a unique format for the Tour Championship, with the field assigned “starting strokes” in a “staggered” manner. Therefore, the leaderboard already reads, before a shot has been hit:
- 10-under Patrick Cantlay
- 8-under Tony Finau
- 7-under Bryson DeChambeau
- 6-under Jon Rahm
- 5-under Cameron Smith
- 4-under Justin Thomas, Harris English, Abraham Ancer, Jordan Spieth, Sam Burns
- 3-under Collin Morikawa, Sungjae Im, Viktor Hovland, Louis Oosthuizen, Dustin Johnson
- 2-under Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele, Jason Kokrak, Kevin Na, Brooks Koepka
- 1-under Corey Conners, Hideki Matsuyama, Stewart Cink, Joaquin Niemann, Scottie Scheffler
- Even Daniel Berger, Erik Van Rooyen, Sergio Garcia, Billy Horschel, Patrick Reed
What is immediately apparent, on a course that has historically suited specialists, is that past winners Johnson, McIlroy and Schauffele are well off-the pace and have a hell of a lot to do in order to contend on Sunday.
Equally clear is that Cantlay has a dreadful record at East Lake: he’s played it three times and has a best of T20th. There will be an intriguing battle between his stellar efforts last week (his Strokes Gained putting number were the best ever recorded) and his awful putting stats on the course. If he performs to East Lake type, he’ll be caught.
I make Jon Rahm the favourite and shorter than the standard price. Unfortunately so, too, does the compiler. So, my tip in the outright is instead Tony Finau who has a solid East Lake record (twice seventh) and great form. He was superb tee-to-green when winning two weeks ago and then putted exceptionally last week. Sitting pretty in the staggered start he can give us a good run for our money at +750.
Winner Without FedExCup Starting Strokes – Rory McIlroy at +1200
We’ve already seen this year how much a favoured course can draw the best out of Rory McIlroy – his only win came at Quail Hollow, a track he absolutely adores. Last week he was in wonderful form from the tee box, ranking second for Strokes Gained Off the Tee, second also for Driving Distance, and 14th for Accuracy.
Those number are striking when you recall the words of Patrick Cantlay, when asked about East Lake on Sunday. “Driving the ball in the fairway is very important because of the Bermuda rough,” he said. “In the past we’ve had it firm, so that highlights putting the ball in the fairway even more so.”
If his game is currently a neat fit, we also know that McIlroy is proven in the past. He was the winner at East Lake in both 2016 and 2019, was second in 2014, and seventh in 2018 and last year. He’s the pick of those to end the week with the low score (if not the trophy).