TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP: It’s difficult to force people to care about something. Particularly in sports, passion and enthusiasm are organic things, and attempts by leagues and regulatory bodies to artificially generate enthusiasm where none previously existed almost always turn out poorly.
And that brings us to the FedExCup Playoffs, a contrived series intended to make professional golf relevant after the year’s major championships have concluded. We’re not just talking about “relevance” in the eyes of fans, either: for years, the world’s top players have gradually wound things down after the year’s final major, playing sparingly in the fall/winter months, if at all. For most fans of the sport, this arrangement has always been acceptable: golf season gives way to other sports, and all the post-major tournaments have always been somewhat anticlimactic, anyway, like playing a football game a couple of weeks after the Super Bowl.
For the monied interests, however– like PGA Tour sponsor FedEx– this time period has always been viewed as an exploitable gap in the action. The only thing needed to create the enthusiasm, the thinking goes, is to ensure that the best players show up, and the way to do that is by attaching obscene amounts of money to the proceedings. And so, we get the current situation: $70 million spread out among 30 players who are already fantastically rich, with $10 million going to the winner of this contrived three-tournament series.
While the FedExCup Playoffs have featured some memorable moments– most prominently Tiger’s victory in this tournament last year– something about the whole thing leaves a bad taste in the mouths of some fans, and for those of us in that camp, this week will be the culmination and ultimate “celebration” of the stupidity of the idea: in their latest ingenious tweak, the powers that be have decided to handicap this week’s tournament, with the top-ranked player in the Point Standings– Justin Thomas– starting the event at 10-under, the second ranked player (Patrick Cantlay) starting at minus-8; then we have Brooks Koepka at 7-under, Patrick Reed at 6-under, Rory McIlroy at 5-under, etc. The lowest-ranked players to qualify for this tournament– Nos. 26-30– will start the week at even par, a full 10 shots behind Thomas.
What. A. Farce. Are you kidding me? Who thought this was a good idea? How do these people have jobs? Now this tournament– the Tour Championship– feels like some glorified exhibition, only with even more money involved (much more). This format is an affront to the sport, and with decisions like this being made at the highest levels, there’s reason to be concerned that some of the wackier ideas floated by the “golf is dying” crowd– making the hole 3-feet in diameter, combining some soccer or “foot-golf” elements, or frisbee golf, speed golf, god I don’t know– might actually be considered some day. I know I sound like the old man yelling at the clouds here, but this is not good.
All that being said, we do have a chance to make a little money this week, and the argument could be made that there might be unique opportunities and places to find value, considering no one– players or bettors– has ever experienced this sort of event before. I mean, who knows, maybe starting the week way off the lead– or near the top of the leaderboard– will make some guys react differently. With that in mind, it may be a good idea to take a chance on at least one player who is starting the week well off the lead, because those guys are priced longer than they would normally be at the start of a tournament, for obvious reasons. Anyway, that’s the best I’ve got, the closest I can come to putting lipstick on this pig. Looking forward to the Greenbrier, and the start of the wraparound season, in a few weeks.
With the limited field this week, I’ve decided to back two players instead of the usual three. Here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jon Rahm (15.5)- Rahm starts the week at 4-under, with only five players ahead of him. Considering his recent form– five consecutive finishes of 11th or better, including a T5 at Medinah last week– and his penchant for crazy-low numbers (he opened with a 62 at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude three starts ago, and posted an opening 64 at The Northern Trust the following week), he feels like good value at a price like 15.5. He played well in this event last year, finishing 11th despite a disappointing final round 72, and he fared even better on debut in 2017, finishing 7th, so East Lake obviously suits his game. Plus, Rahm has targeted this event for several weeks now, repeatedly mentioning in interviews that he’s hoping to peak this week. Golf is not a game of “who wants it bad enough”, that’s for sure, but it’s not a bad thing when one of the world’s hottest players is highly motivated. We’ll see if he can chase down Thomas… but all things considered, Rahm is my favorite bet on the board this week.
Rickie Fowler (70.0)- Look, I know that backing someone who’s starting the tournament in an 8-shot hole isn’t a great feeling. I mean… how often does Fowler beat Justin Thomas by at least NINE SHOTS when they’re both in the same field? Sure, it happens, but we’re talking about a significant separation here– 8 shots is usually difference between 5th and 50th. Still, with only 30 players in the field this week and only 15 starting the week ahead of Fowler, he’s certainly capable of winning, and though he didn’t get much TV time at the BMW last week, he played solid golf, breaking par in all four rounds and finishing 11th, a performance that comes just two starts after his T6 at the Open. Fowler’s brilliance around the greens and with the putter in his hands (13th on Tour in putts per round, 18th in strokes gained putting) should make him a great fit for East Lake, where even the best ball-strikers will be forced to scramble a bit and hole putts, and indeed he played well in this event last year, finishing 7th after a brilliant Sunday 65. I know Fowler doesn’t win as much as he should, but we never see him at 70.0 with four rounds in front of him, either. He’s worth a bet this week.