Tour Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
Following his spectacular victory at the BMW Championship at Medinah, Justin Thomas leads the FedEx Cup and holds the critical advantage over the other 29 players in the field, at the Tour Championship at East Lake. With an elite field of just 30 golfers, it brings the curtain down on another memorable PGA Tour season, with the winner of the FedEx Cup walking away from here with a magnificent trophy and a cheque for the small matter of $15m. Even for guys who compete for the sort of money these golfers do on a weekly basis, this is a massive deal.
It would, of course, be a brave man who would bet against Brooks Koepka - who starts the event three shots back of Thomas in the new format - adding yet another title to his growing collection. The American has had an unbelievable season, winning the US PGA Championship, finishing second at both The Masters and US Open (where he was going for a third successive victory) and fourth at The Open Championship at Royal Portrush. He then headed straight back across the Atlantic Ocean from Northern Ireland and thrashed McIlroy to win the WGC FedEx St Jude Invitational. Everything he touches seems to be turning to gold at the moment.
Koepka has made its clear that his primary focus is the majors. The problem for his rivals is that the next major is The Masters in April 2020, which means that he has several months to focus on picking up other titles. He is the undisputed world number one and is leading the FedEx Cup standings, while earning money faster than any human being could possibly spend it. He has only missed one cut all season and his victory in Memphis was his third of the season. He has spoken about how much it hurts that he has struggled to gain the recognition his play deserves but seems to be coming to terms with the fact that he should let his golf do the talking.
He produced a masterclass in seeing off Rory McIlroy in Memphis. He went into the final round trailing the Northern Irishman by a shot and then produced a masterclass that left McIlroy reeling. Koepka produced a 65 to McIlroy’s 71, and the result was never really in doubt from early on in the final round. The American simply has no weaknesses in his game. It is well known that he hits the ball a mile. But he also has a wondrous short game. He struggled with the pace of the greens at Royal Portrush but was still able to claim a tie for fourth place, which tells you everything you need to know about the quality of the rest of his game.
He is also a man who is worth listening to when he starts to talk about the problems in the game. He has been particularly outspoken on the subject of slow play, launching a withering attack on Bryson DeChambeau after the young American’s embarrassing performance in Dubai earlier in the season. “I just don’t understand how it takes a minute and 20 seconds, a minute and 15 to hit a golf ballI. It’s not that hard. Guys are already so slow it’s kind of embarrassing. I just don’t get why you enforce some things and don’t enforce others. Slow players are breaking the rules but no-one has the balls to penalise them.”
He also had the misfortune to be paired with JB Holmes in the final round of The Open. Holmes is a notoriously slow player and had a horrendous day at Royal Portrush, shooting an 87. “I wasn’t wearing a watch, so, yeah. Yeah, I mean, he had a rough day. But JB is a slow player. I know it’s difficult with the wind but I didn’t think he was that bad today. I thought he was alright. There were some times where I thought it was slow. There’s a lot of slow guys out here. I’m usually ready to go, as soon as the guy’s ball is coming down.
“That’s what I don’t understand when it’s your turn to hit, your glove is not on, then you start thinking about it, that’s where the problem lies. It’s not that he takes that long. He doesn’t do anything until his turn. That’s the frustrating part. But he’s not the only one that does it out here. The European Tour does an unbelievable job with the pace of play, posting it in the locker rooms. The PGA doesn’t do that.” You may recall that Koepka learnt his trade on the European Tour.
After beating McIlroy at Memphis he said: "It's always fun to battle Rory. He's a fun player to watch and you can watch him hit ball all day. He's a true competitor and to win it against him was special. I thought early on that if I could make a few putts and try to catch up to Rory by nine, or have a little bit of a lead, it would be big. Once I got off to that start I was flying. I played really solid. The goal was to make no bogeys and I came out bogey-free so I'm really pleased with it.”
It is a fairly safe bet that McIlroy didn’t think that it was much fun out there. He was happy to speak to the media after failing to make the cut at Royal Portrush, thanking the fans who inspired him to a second round of 65 that meant he missed out on the weekend by a single stroke. It was notable that after the final round in Memphis he declined to speak to the press.
Koepka, meanwhile, had plenty to say. With the victory, he has essentially won Player of the Year honours for a second straight season. “I was excited when I found out this was becoming a World Golf Championship,” he said. “That’s the whole goal is to win as many times as you can throughout the year and turn up for the big events and make sure you’re in contention.“I feel like this year I’ve done a good job of that, been a lot more consistent. You know, the year's not done, I’ve still got a few things to finish off and hopefully it will go my way.”
So McIlroy will head to East Lake feeling that he has a point to prove. And he does. He won The Players Championship and the Canadian Open, and there have been plenty of flashes of the brilliance we know he possesses, but he measures his year by his play in the majors. He decided to play most of his golf on the PGA Tour in 2019 because he said it gave him the best chance of ending a major drought that has now lasted for five years. So much for that plan.
He now admits that he got it wrong. "I tried to treat the the majors like every other event and I've realised that they're not," he said. "You need to have a different mindset and you need to prepare properly.” He is arguably the greatest golfer Europe has ever produced but there is clearly an issue between his ears. It is all too easy to point to his performance on the greens and dismiss him as a poor putter. That is nonsense. You don’t shoot the sort of scores he does unless you can putt. The problem is that when the pressure is really on his confidence on the greens seems to desert him. Only he can work out the answers, and this week at East Lake would be a very good starting point, starting five shots behind Thomas.
In a major change from previous years, the winner of the Tour Championship is ensured of winning the overall FedEx Cup and the $15m bonus, but the starting positions of the 30 players reflects their status on the points standings. In an innovation coined Starting Strokes, leader Justin Thomas will start at 10-under, two ahead of Patrick Cantlay at 8-under. Brooks Koepka is at 7-under, Patrick Reed at 6-under, and Rory McIlroy at 5-under.
Whoever wins on Sunday will secure the main prize. Different. Sensible? We'll see!
The Tour Championship was won in 2011 by Bill Haas, in 2012 by Brandt Snedeker, in 2013 by Henrik Stenson, in 2014 by Billy Horschel, in 2015 by Jordan Spieth, in 2016 by Rory McIlroy, in 2017 by Xander Schauffele and last year by Tiger Woods.
Brooks Koepka. Difficult to bet against him
Rory McIlroy. Has a point to prove
Xander Schauffele. Hugely impressive
Brooks Koepka. Who else?
Rory McIlroy. Deep breaths Rory, deep breaths
Xander Schauffele. Still underrated
Jon Rahm. Can win anywhere
Dustin Johnson. Has gone off the boil in recent weeks
Justin Rose. Looking to close out his season in some style
Tommy Fleetwood. Living the dream
Patrick Cantlay. Everybody says he’s the best big thing
Justin Thomas. Leads the FedEx Cup
Tony Finau. As consistent as they come
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