ATLANTA — Here’s one unconventional way to look at Jon Rahm‘s dramatic 66-foot birdie putt on Sunday during the BMW Championship sudden-death playoff: It pulled him within 2 strokes of Dustin Johnson heading into this week’s Tour Championship.
Forget that it was his fifth PGA Tour victory and second in 2020 and earned him $1.7 million. Or that it was his 11th official professional win, including his six on the European Tour. Or that it kept him a solid No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking after having earlier moved to No. 1 when he won the Memorial Tournament in July.
Snicker all you want — and there might be other words used to describe the situation — but as far as the season-long FedEx Cup title is concerned, Rahm’s victory in Chicago served to put him within 2 shots of Johnson when the Tour Championship begins on Friday.
“I’m glad it ended that way, and I’m glad to be in the situation I’m in now,” Rahm said.
Moving up as Rahm did last week proved to be bigger than just a tournament win. It gave him a better chance of winning the FedEx Cup and its $15 million first prize. He was ninth in the standings starting the week.
Here are some of the storylines heading into the Tour Championship, the season-ending event of the 2019-20 season.
So how does this work
For the second year, the Tour Championship has scrapped the FedEx Cup points earned to this point and ranked the players based on their finish, giving them a starting score. So Johnson, who is No. 1 in the standings, starts the week at 10 under. Rahm is 8 under. Justin Thomas is 7 under, Webb Simpson is 6 under and PGA champion Collin Morikawa is 5 under. Players who ranked 6-10 in points are 4 under, with players who finished 11-15 at 3 under, 16-20 at 2 under, 21-25 at 1 under and 36-30 at even par.
To some, that is hokey. The Tour Championship is not a 72-hole event in the traditional sense in that there is a good possibility that the player who shoots the lowest score for the week will not win the Tour Championship, and thus will not win the FedEx Cup.
The idea behind the plan — and it worked out perfectly last year as Rory McIlroy came from 5 strokes back to start the tournament to shoot the lowest 72-hole score and win the FedEx Cup — was to eliminate the confusion caused by the points and keeping track of what it means as far as the final FedEx standings.
“I’m starting 7 back,” said Xander Schauffele, who won the Tour Championship in 2017, when it was separate from the FedEx Cup. “It’s an interesting format, obviously having Dustin and Rahm starting at 10 and 8 under. I think last year I started at 4 under, this year 3 under, so I don’t really see the big change for me mentally. Just kind of go out and get it. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Now it’s simple. You look at the scoreboard just as in any tournament. The difference is not all players are starting at even par.
But keep this in mind: Two years ago, under the old format, Tiger Woods shot the lowest 72-hole score. But in the new format, that would not have been enough to win the Tour Championship, thus denying him his 80th PGA Tour victory.
A head start
Dustin Johnson really doesn’t need any more advantages than he already has at this point. But he’ll begin the Tour Championship 2 strokes ahead of Rahm and with just four other players within 4 strokes. He still has to maintain that over 72 holes.
Johnson is 53 under par in his past four tournaments and has a scoring average of 66.9.
Webb Simpson, who won twice this season, decided to skip the BMW Championship in order to rest for the Tour Championship. Skipping last week’s event cost him only one spot in the FedEx standings; he is fourth, and 4 shots behind Johnson. Simpson leads the PGA Tour in scoring average.
The FedEx Cup bonus pool is $60 million, $45 million of which is paid out to the top 30 players competing in Atlanta. The remaining $15 million is spread out to those players who finished from 31st to 150th in the final standings.
The winner of the FedEx Cup receives $15 million. Second place gets $5 million, and the player who finishes 30th still gets $395,000 — or roughly what sixth place would have received last week at the BMW Championship.
Just getting to East Lake comes with other benefits. For those not otherwise exempt, anyone in the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings will get spots in the 2021 Masters (not 2020), the U.S. Open and The Open. For 2021 only, those who made it here will also get a spot in the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which is normally limited to only the previous year’s tournament winners.
Johnson leads the FedEx Cup standings, and for the first time the top three players in the Official World Golf Rankings are also the top three in the FedEx: Johnson, Rahm and Thomas.
Defending champion Rory McIlroy, Simpson, Morikawa, Bryson DeChambeau, Daniel Berger, Schauffele, Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama, Tony Finau, Kevin Kisner and Marc Leishman are among others in the field. Brendon Todd, after a surprise two-victory season, has a chance for further glory.
Johnson has made the Tour Championship for the 12th straight year. Thomas, the season’s only three-time winner, is hoping to join McIlroy and Woods as the only two-time FedEx champions. McIlroy could become the first three-time FedEx Cup winner.
Among some newer faces are Scottie Scheffler, who won the Korn Ferry Tour Championship a year ago; Viktor Hovland, who won the Puerto Rico Open; Tyrrell Hatton, who won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the last event played prior to the pandemic shutdown; and Lanto Griffin, who won last fall at the Houston Open.
Several weeks of playing opportunities were lost due to the pandemic. And while many players did their best to make up ground, some were simply unable to do so. Others dealt with injury issues.
Brooks Koepka is the best example. He finished fourth at the Tour Championship last year. He started 2020 ranked No. 1 in the world. He is still ranked No. 7, but withdrew prior to the first playoff event and was not guaranteed to advance.
Tommy Fleetwood also did not make it to East Lake, mostly because the Englishman sat out most of the events following the shutdown. He is ranked 16th in the world.
Tiger Woods also failed to make it to Atlanta despite winning this season. Woods played just seven events, however, and was unable to advance beyond last week’s BMW Championship. He joins 2019 major champions Koepka, Gary Woodland and Shane Lowry as players failing to make it to East Lake this year.
Justin Rose, who won the FedEx Cup two years ago, is missing the Tour Championship for just the second time in 11 seasons.
What about Rory?
McIlroy canceled his media availability for Thursday and is at home in Florida with his wife, Erica, as they await the birth of the couple’s first child. McIlroy had said last week at the BMW Championship that she was due “any day.” It remains unclear if McIlroy will leave for Atlanta if the baby has not arrived. With an early afternoon tee time, he could arrive in time by leaving Friday morning.
The winner of the FedEx Cup titles in 2016 and 2019, McIlroy has gone eight straight tournaments without a top-10 finish — his longest such drought since a 13-tournament stretch in 2007-08.