Ben Jared. Getty Images.
I don’t want to dance on any graves here. I really don’t. Believe it or not, I was hoping the Tour Championship would stick it directly in my face and, after I’d been calling all week for the tournament to completely remake itself, deliver an electric finale to the PGA Tour season. The staggered-scoring-stroke-play format would produce a who’s who of the game’s best trading blows down the stretch with $18 million on the line. Maybe we’d get Scottie Scheffler vs. Jon Rahm, a heavyweight tussle between the two top dogs of 2023. That’d be fitting. Or someone would come from nowhere, shooting a final-round 62 to overcome their starting deficit and steal the grand prize. That’d be fun. I hoped for something along these lines because I love this sport, and I want other people to love it too, and finishing the FedEx Cup season with a bang is vital if people are to care about the FedEx Cup.
Instead, we got perhaps the most boring Sunday of the year.
That is, of course, not taking anything away from Viktor Hovland’s performance at East Lake. He shot 19 under in the gross division of the Tour Championship, an amazing effort on a not-easy course—that, plus his 8-under “Starting Score,” brought him to 27 under for the week. Xander Schauffele also needed 261 strokes to complete 72 holes, but he only started at 3 under, and so Hovland cruised to the FedEx Cup title on a mostly buzz-less Sunday. And still, the money—$18 million of it for Viktor—counts the same.
“Obviously it’s a lot of cash you’re playing for,” Hovland said. “I mean, it’s in the back of your mind. But I live in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Money goes a long ways there. It’s not like I’m spending money out the wazoo every week.
“I don’t need a lot to be happy. I don’t need a lot to live within my means. So obviously it’s nice for my family to have that protection and my, you know, eventual kids, that I’ll have in the future. It’s nice to have that, but it’s not something that drives me, it’s not something that gives me meaning. I find meaning in other places. But obviously with how society works, money is something you need.”
Money aside, this was an anti-climax in the truest sense of the word. Hovland began the day with a six shot lead, it never got closer than three, and he finished with a five-shot victory. This foregone conclusion was a product of the current format.
It’s been an incredible fortnight for the Norwegian, who closed with a course-record 61 at Olympia Fields to win last week’s BMW Championship. He was very good in the regular season and the best in the playoffs, and the playoff system is designed to reward that pattern of play. He won’t win Player of the Year—that’ll probably go to Jon Rahm, with his four wins and his green jacket. Scottie Scheffler will likely finish second after one of the greatest ball striking seasons of all time. Still, a frigid putter assured his 2023 season will forever be one of the great what ifs. Two wins, with zero majors, is the least one could possibly get out of a year where he lead the tour in strokes gained off the tee and strokes gained approach. What if he putted just tour average for the season?
Scheffler did not finish in the top 5 of the “season-long” competition. Rahm didn’t, either. That would be fine if the Tour Championship didn’t claim to fairly settle the FedEx Cup. It’d be even finer if the tournament was awesome to watch. But it does, and it wasn’t. And therein lies the issue.
The Tour Championship is trying to serve two distinct (and somewhat contradictory) purposes. That’s never an easy ordeal. The tournament aims to justly crown the winner of a season-long competition and put on a good show in and of itself. It wants to leave a strong lasting impression before football dominates American sports for the rest of the year. The 2023 edition accomplished neither goal.
As currently constructed, winning a FedEx Cup playoff event comes with nearly four times the points of winning a designated event or a major championship. It’s 2000 points for winning the FedEx St. Jude and 600 for winning the Masters. That is, of course, completely out of line with how the golf world weights the importance of certain tournaments. Jon Rahm won two designated events, a major and a “regular” event and, because of a bad weekend at East Lake, finished T18 in the season-long points race. Scottie Scheffler posted 20 top-25 finishes on the season, was by far the most consistent player, and because of a bad weekend at East Lake he finished T6. Hovland did win three times this year and was probably the third best player on the PGA Tour this season. But he wasn’t the first or second, and yet the record books in Ponte Vedra will forever insist that 2022-23 was his.
All this to say: the Tour Championship shouldn’t continue unsuccessfully serving both masters. In its current form it will never be trusted to accurately crown the best player on the PGA Tour for a certain season. Doing so would require accurately weighting the Tour Championship (and the other two playoff events) in line with the other big events, not arbitrarily handing them 4x the points. The FedEx Cup is its own self-contained entity. Moving forward, it should lean into being its own self-contained entity and try to make itself as entertaining a product as possible. If you’re not going to be fair—and, for all the reasons discussed previously, it’s not—at least be fun.
This isn’t fun. So, I’m going to make one final push for a revamped Tour Championship that would, if nothing else, entertain. Turn the back half of the Tour Championship into a single-elimination, match-play bracket. Keep some sort of staggered scoring to start the week, so there’s at least some reward for playing better throughout the year. Then, after two rounds, chop the 30-man field to eight players. In the case of ties, play sudden death on Friday afternoon to get it down to eight. Then, the top eight progress to a single-elimination bracket, with the winner getting the $18 million prize. There’d be consolation matches throughout the weekend and, given how rich the FedEx Cup prize pool has become, each of those matches would be worth serious coin.
Match-play is criminally underused at the highest levels or professional golf, especially now that the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is no more. The vast majority of weekend golfers play match play at home. It’s an easy format for casuals to understand. The reason it’s not used more often is because, if there are only a few matches on the course and they’re not close, the broadcast doesn’t have the luxury to show dozens of other golfers to fill dead space. But anyone who watched Sunday’s broadcast can attest to just how flat it was. And it’s not like the Tour Championship broadcast flies around the course as is; with only 30 guys in the field, the show always zeroes in a few players down the stretch. This week, it was Hovland, and Schauffele five behind him, and Clark way behind them, and McIlroy even further back. With match play, you’d have the championship match and the consolation match to show off. They’d be playing for serious money. You’d see way more emotion from players than you did this weekend. Sunday would, at least for the first holes, guarantee some drama. And there wouldn’t be this weird in-between where the FedEx Cup purports to crown a season-long champion without the golf fan’s consent. The Tour should allocate more money to the regular-season competition, the Comcast Business Top 10. That’s a much-better indicator of the year in golf. Rory McIlroy catches my drift.
“I would say more that Jon Rahm finished second in the regular season in the Comcast Top 10,” McIlroy answered when asked about Rahm likely being player of the year and finishing 18th. “I think as that might become more prevalent as the years go on and more money gets put into the regular season as well. You know, it’s almost like two different competitions, two different events. You’ve got the regular season and then you’ve got the playoffs. I think everyone tries to put them together in the same sort of thing, but really they’re like regular season and then this is sort of like a 12-round sprint to the finish.”
That’s exactly right. The playoffs are their own thing. They should feel no duty to settle and season-long scores. With all the changes afoot in world golf, the Tour and the PIF and this NewCo’s guiding light must by when product. Namely, making it as good as possible for the fans. The Tour is free to create. They should make something cool.
Zach Johnson is on the clock
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson is on the clock. His six captain’s picks will be announced Tuesday morning in a live press conference. By my estimation, there’s only one roster spot that could theoretically go to multiple people. As a reminder, the six guys who qualified on points are: Scottie Scheffler, Wyndham Clark, Patrick Cantlay, Brian Harman, Max Homa and Xander Schauffele. I’ll now list my six predictions for captain’s picks in order, from most sure they’re picked to least sure.
1. Jordan Spieth
I see no world in which he’s not a pick. He made the Tour Championship, he finished eighth in the points, he’s got a very good Ryder Cup record, he’s an emotional leader of the group.
2. Brooks Koepka
His wife Jena all seemed to suggest he’s already been notified that he’s a pick with a social media post on Sunday. He finished seventh in the points despite having only four events to accumulate points. When asked if he thought Koepka deserved a pick, Scottie Scheffler made it very clear that he does. The other guys want him there. He didn’t cause issues on his way out the PGA Tour door like a bunch of other LIV guys did. If he’s not picked, it would do damage to the competition as a whole. But he will get picked, and he’ll fill the LIV quota, allowing Zach Johnson to justify not picking Dustin Johnson or Bryson DeChambeau by saying that he went with who he thought the 12 best were, regardless of tour.
3. Collin Morikawa
Opened the Tour Championship with 61-64, and he’s found some solid form toward the end of the summer. This team will be full of bombers, so a player of Moriakwa’s statistical profile—accurate as hell—will be much-needed, particularly if the course is set up tight and penal as it’s expected to be. You want a guy like him playing alternate shot, and he went 3-1 in his Ryder Cup debut.
4. Rickie Fowler
A resurgent year, and he’s so well liked that Zach Johnson was always going to pick him if Fowler played well enough to get into the picture. He did this year, and his clutch putting will be a welcomed addition to the team room. He’s easy going and can pair with virtually anyone.
5. Justin Thomas
I’m not saying I’d pick him, but I think ZJ will. His comments about JT at the Open were telling. To paraphrase: I’m not worried about him. He’s too good to struggle for too long. He’ll bust out of this. You have to think big picture with these teams, not just who’s playing the best right now. Thomas finished the year semi-strong, with a decent showing at the Wyndham, and he’s done everything right as far as showing ZJ how badly he wants a pick. He’s said so publicly. He showed up to ZJ’s charity pro-am at the end of the season. He signed up to play in the fall. He’s 6-2-1 in his two Ryder Cup appearances, the best mark of any American to play in at least two. He was the emotional heartbeat of the team at Whistling Straits. And the tournament is still four weeks away. It’s not like it’s tomorrow, and you want to ride the hot hand. There’s no guarantee the hot hand now will be the hot hand in a month. Or, in JT’s case, that the cold golfer will still be cold in a month.
6. Cameron Young
I’m making this prediction based mostly off Fred Couples’ comments a few months back, where he spilled the beans by saying “Cameron Young will be in Italy.” Couples is an assistant captain, so you’d think he’d be in the know…but you’d also think he wouldn’t just say that to the media, so who knows. This last spot could also go to Keegan Bradley, Sam Burns or Russell Henley, but I’ll go with Young. All four played solidly at East Lake, but no one made such a powerful statement over the final two weeks that Johnson can’t ignore.
—On the European front…this week’s European Masters presents the last opportunity for players to earn auto-qualification. It’s an extremely close race for the third and final spot on the European Points list. Robert MacIntyre currently holds the spot after finishing T4 at the D+D Real Czech Masters. That kept him ahead of Yannik Paul, who finished a shot further back in T10. Also T4 was Ludvig Aberg, the Swedish PGA Tour rookie out of Texas A&M who found quick success after getting his card by winning the PGA Tour University program. All three will tee it up at the European Masters in Switzerland. Aberg’s strong showing in Czech helped his chances immensely, and I believe he’s likely to make the team.
—I’ll have a full breakdown of Zach Johnson’s picks after he makes them on Tuesday.
—A few pieces of news on the personnel front. Max Homa switched management agencies, leaving Matt Broome as Professional Advisory Group for Excel Sports Management. Excel, run by Tiger Woods’ longtime agent Mark Steinberg, also represent Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Matt Fitzpatrick and Justin Rose, among others.
Tom Kim is no longer working with swing coach Cameron McCormick. He’s now with another Dallas-based tour guru in Chris Como, who has helped rebuild Jason Day’s swing to great effect this year.
—Team Europe now has three of the top four players in the world, both in the Official World Golf Ranking and Data Golf’s ranking. Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland anchor Luke Donald’s team in Rome, and they’re as strong a 1-2-3 frontline as Donald could’ve hoped for.
—There’s an asterisk given the limited fields and staggered scoring, but Sunday’s Tour Championship marked the 10th consecutive event that Rory McIlroy has posted a top 10. That’s the longest streak he’s had in his career on the PGA Tour. McIlroy grinded it out at East Lake after tweaking his back early in the week. He couldn’t turn through the ball normally, making it impossible to hit a fade and limiting his arsenal to lower-launch draws. He still managed to shoot -7 gross, highlighted by a final-round 65, and finished solo fourth in the FedEx Cup standings.
—Chan Kim, whose unique path we discussed in last week’s Monday Rap, followed up his first Korn Ferry Tour win with his second Korn Ferry Tour win. Kim blitzed the field in Boise, winning the first of three Korn Ferry Tour playoff events to lock up his PGA Tour card for next year. The 33-year-old Arizona State grad had been playing in Asia for years, winning eight times on the Japanese Tour and playing in 12 majors before deciding to go to Q-school and hope to earn his PGA Tour card through the Korn Ferry Tour. Mission accomplished.
—JoAnne Carner stays a legend. the 84-year-old, affectionately known as Big Mama, shot 80 in the opening round of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open. A 43-time LPGA Tour winner and golf Hall of Famer, Carner broke the record for oldest player to tee it in a USGA competition two years ago and shot lower than her age for the sixth time in USGA competition. She headed to the range after her opening-round 80 to hit some more balls in 90 degree heat. As Ron Sirak put it: a game for life, a love for life.
Icon Sportswire. Getty Images.
—Alejandro Tosti, the Argentinian who locked up his PGA Tour card with a win on the Korn Ferry Tour two weeks ago, has been suspended for disciplinary reasons. He was forced to WD from the Albertsons Boise Open after an opening-round 67, and sources say Tosti has gotten himself into trouble with KFT officials multiple times this year. He’s got a reputation as a true wild boy—quick temper, fast and loose with rules, not exactly kind to tournament staff—and we could well see some fireworks when he plays on the Big Tour next year.
“He’s been written up multiple times this season,” one KFT source said. “I guess they finally just decided to punish him instead of slaps on the wrist.” Says a KFT player: “I know he’s been called a cheater multiple times before. So not sure what happened yesterday that made the suspension happen…he’s got a chip on his shoulder always.” Adds another: “Basically he acts like a jackass and breaks tee markers and all sorts of stuff and they had enough.”
Ugly incidents can stay quiet on the KFT. Not so much on the PGA Tour.
Until next week,