TOUR CHAMPIONSHIP: Last week’s BMW Championship produced a thrilling finish that, for the first time, made me truly miss the galleries. The roars after DJ’s putt on the 72nd hole to send it to a playoff– and then Rahm’s improbable 66-footer on the first playoff hole– would’ve been memorable, for sure. But even without the added excitement, it made for compelling television, and was just the type of event that those in charge of the FedEx Cup Playoffs must’ve envisioned when they launched the series back in 2007.
You can certainly understand the “why” behind the idea: the Tour wanted to extend its relevance and keep the money machine rolling beyond the final major of the year, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to get not only the fans, but the players themselves to care enough to even show up to these contrived late summer/early autumn tournaments. And so you have the creation of the “Playoffs”, complete with a big-name corporate sponsor who can throw enough money at the whole thing to get anybody and everybody to show up. I mean, who wouldn’t play a couple of extra tournaments for a shot at $15 million, which is what the winner will take home this week? These guys are rich, not stupid. Money talks.
So down the slippery slope we go: first a big-money “playoff” series, then unhappiness that the final event in the series, the Tour Championship, wasn’t always all that consequential– particularly when the title had already been locked up prior to the tournament even starting, as was the case in both 2007 and 2008. Predictably, the points system was tweaked, and then tweaked again, and now we have the final result: a farcical bastardization of a championship event, the equivalent of a “Net” division in the local Friday scramble.
Yes, the field this week will be handicapped: points leader Dustin Johnson will start the week at -10, Jon Rahm at -8, Justin Thomas at -7, and so on. Five players will start the week at even par, a full 10 shots behind your “leader”, a guy who everybody’s had trouble beating even when they’re not spotting him strokes. This is the second year for this format, and I continue to be floored that anyone thinks it is a good idea. It goes against the very essence of a golf tournament– that the person with the lowest score at the end of a predetermined number of holes will be declared the champion. This week, that won’t necessarily be the case, as much will depend on the score you were assigned prior to the start of play. It’s an abomination, and the fact that outlandish sums of money are on the line makes it even worse, somehow. They’ve figured out a way to make these guys even wealthier– that’s pretty much it. Will anybody’s legacy really be affected one way or the other by anything that happens this week?
All that being said, we’re only a couple of days removed from proof that “playoff” golf can be pretty fun, too, and if we get a DJ vs. Rahm redux down the stretch this week, I’ll be as glued to the screen as anyone else. East Lake is certainly a course worthy of a championship event: built in the early 20th century but given its modern form by Donald Ross and later Rees Jones, East Lake is famously where the great Bobby Jones learned the game, and this will be the 17th time it’s hosted the Tour Championship. A par-70 that measures over 7,300 yards, it’s certainly a full-size golf course, and the longer guys have done well in this event over the years, and especially recently, with the last four stagings being won by Rory McIlroy (’19, ’16), Justin Rose (’18), and Justin Thomas (’17). Like many Ross courses, the green complexes are tricky and if players aren’t careful they can find themselves with delicate, difficult short game shots. The sticky Bermuda rough that lines the fairways acts as the course’s primary defense, and it makes controlling distance and holding the firm, fast greens especially difficult.
Unsurprisingly, the man who has been handed the lead currently heads BETDAQ’s Win Market, and considering the way he’s been playing lately, I don’t think 3.25 for DJ is too unreasonable. That said, we saw last year that a pre-tourney lead can evaporate quickly, and there are a few guys sitting just off the pace that offer considerable value, particularly if DJ gets off to a poor start. Here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Webb Simpson (14.0)- After a grueling stretch of five tournaments in six weeks, including the PGA Championship, a WGC event, and a Playoff event, Simpson decided to skip last week’s BMW Championship, and the decision may have paid off, as it ended up only costing him 1 stroke (he’ll now start the week at -6) and he’s presumably fresh and ready to make a run at the $15 million. He’s been playing brilliant golf of late, logging five top-12 finishes and a victory since the restart, and he was last seen firing a final round 66 at The Northern Trust to finish 6th, so there are absolutely zero concerns about his current form. A North Carolina native who is very familiar with golf in the Southeast, Simpson has always done his best work on Bermuda greens, and according to Fantasy National he ranks third in the field this week in Strokes Gained: Putting over the last 24 rounds at East Lake. Considering that putting can sometimes be the weak spot of his game, it’s very relevant that he has a good history on the greens at East Lake, and with the way he strikes the ball, you have to like his chances anytime he tees it up at this course. He’s got a nice history in this event, finding the top-10 three times in seven appearances and finishing T4 in 2018, but something tells me we haven’t seen his best work here yet. Maybe this will be the week…
Daniel Berger (42.0)- Berger has been an occasional threat for years now– someone who could contend when he was playing well, but who couldn’t be relied upon on a week-to-week basis. Well, he’s completely broken free of that mold this year, transforming into one of the very best players in the world, a legitimate threat anytime and anywhere he tees it up. In his last 10 events, Berger has nine top-25s, seven top-10s, an astounding six top-5s, and a victory at the Charles Schwab Challenge. He’s done it in different geographical locations, on different types of grass, and in tournaments big and small. He’s simply rolling right now, and East Lake sets up perfectly for him with its Bermuda greens (long Berger’s preferred surface) and emphasis on driving the ball (he ranks 17th on Tour in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee). He hasn’t played this tournament since 2017– so, not since he became an elite player, in other words– and has three top-15s here to his credit. He starts this week at -4, six off the pace, but there’s only five guys in front of him, so if he gets off to a quick start, look out. He’s playing as well as anyone in the world and is a great value here at better than 40/1.
Brendon Todd (178.0)- While erasing a 7-shot deficit to Dustin Johnson may seem unlikely, there’s nobody in the field as comfortable with defying the odds as Todd, who lost his Tour card a few years ago and nearly quit the game before an unlikely resurgence. A 35-year old grinder with a swing that looks closer to a local club champion than a Masters champion, Todd is having a career year, and you can almost feel the confidence emanating from him as you watch him play. Like Simpson and Berger, Bermuda is his best surface, so he should be comfortable with that aspect of East Lake, and he’s coming off a brilliant week on the greens at Olympia Fields, where he finished 8th, his best showing in a month. Though he’s not long off the tee, he’s fourth on Tour in Driving Accuracy, so he’ll put himself in position to succeed, and with the way he’s been putting, he just needs to give himself opportunities. He may be a longshot for more reasons than one, but I’m willing to take a chance on Todd this week at a price like 178.0.