TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP: An elite 30-man field will tee it up in Atlanta this week for the great cash grab known as the Tour Championship, a tournament in which last place makes $395k and the winner takes home a cool $15 million.
The format is hokey, sure, but for this kind of money I’m sure the guys would putt through a clown’s mouth if necessary. Patrick Cantlay ascended to first in the standings after winning last week’s BMW Championship in a thrilling duel with Bryson DeChambeau, so he’ll begin this week as the leader at 10-under (for those unfamiliar with the format, it’s a handicapped event, with first place in the FedEx Cup standings beginning the week at 10-under, second place starting at 8-under, third at 7-under, and so on), with Tony Finau (-8), DeChambeau (-7), and Jon Rahm (-6) on his heels. Cantlay’s brilliant ball-striking would seemingly make him a good frontrunner, but he’s struggled in this event, never finishing better than 20th (out of 30) in three career appearances.
Maybe Cantlay just doesn’t like East Lake, the course best known for being the old stomping grounds of Bobby Jones but which has gained new prominence as the permanent host of this tournament. A par-70 that tips out at 7,346 yards, East Lake can be just about as difficult as the Tour wants it to be. If they played it all the way back and grew the Bermuda rough high, we would see U.S. Open-like scoring. The Tour knows the fans want birdies, though, so they’ll move the tee boxes around a bit, and if the last few years are any indication the rough, while still penal, will be playable. The greens are also Bermuda, which will be a change from what the players have seen lately and should definitely be taken into account when handicapping the field this week.
Two years ago we saw Rory McIlroy start the week at 5-under and pull out the W, but no one was able to catch Dustin Johnson last year after he began the week out front, though Xander Schauffele beat him by 4 strokes over the 72-hole tournament (“the lowest score doesn’t always win” is all that needs to be said re- this format. So now Tour players know how you feel when you get sandbagged by some a**hole in your club member/guest). While four rounds is plenty of time to make up some ground, and one of these days we’re going to have someone start the week at even par and win this tournament, it’s no fun to throw money at players who are starting the week 7 or 8 shots behind, so you may want to view it as a 4 or 5-man race this week. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jon Rahm (4.7)- Yes, he’s starting the week 4 shots behind Cantlay. And yes, his price here is frightfully short… at least it feels that way now (check back with me this weekend). But Rahm has separated himself from the pack these past few months– and by “the pack”, I mean every other golfer on planet Earth– and unlike Cantlay he’s had success at East Lake, finishing 6th in this tournament last year and never worse than 13th in four career appearances. However it’s not his record here that makes him the inescapable play this week, it’s the fact that he’s producing magic nearly every time he steps on the course– any course– these days. Watching Rahm these past few events it almost feels like an upset anytime he doesn’t win, even though his U.S. Open victory was the only time he’s closed the deal this season. He’s had a remarkable run, finding the top-10 in every start since May except for the Memorial, when he held a 6-shot lead heading into the final round but was forced to withdraw. Something tells me he’ll put the cherry on top this week and leave with a Brinks truck full of cash. Every other bet feels like a loser.
Tony Finau (9.5)- It was nice to see Finau get the monkey off his back at the Northern Trust a couple of weeks ago, as he’s been one of the best players on Tour for the past few years but only had one win to show for it. You’d have to think he’s still playing with that “house money” feel, and he begins this week ahead of 28 other guys and only trailing Cantlay by 2 shots. He has plenty of experience at East Lake and has put together a solid record in this event, never finishing in the bottom-half of the field in four career appearances and logging a couple of top-10s. Considering the struggles that Cantlay has had at East Lake, I wouldn’t put any thought into that 2-shot margin… it wouldn’t surprise me if it was gone after the front nine on Thursday. Finau should be in the mix all week, and he’s my pick to win if Rahm should sprain his ankle, sleep through his tee time, lose the directions to the course, or come down with COVID again.
Sungjae Im (80.0)- The format makes this a tough week for longshots, but Im, who begins the week at 3-under, profiles as the type of player who could make a charge and get himself into the mix. After a somewhat disappointing summer he seems to have found his form again, finishing 16th in the Northern Trust and then 3rd in last week’s BMW Championship, where he shot 67 or better in all four rounds and finished the week at 23-under. That’s the sort of offense he’ll need this week to climb out of his hole and up the leaderboard, and he’s definitely capable. He always does his best work on Bermuda greens and he has experience at East Lake, finishing in the top-half of the field here in both ’19 and ’20. If you’re looking for big odds this week, Im might be your golden ticket.