ATLANTA – At precisely 4:24 p.m. ET the season of synchronicity reached its undisputed apex, the confluence of convoluted math and an endearing friendship.
It was Brooks Koepka who set the stage for the year’s ultimate conclusion with a birdie at the 13th hole to move into a tie for sixth at the Tour Championship.
It’s the butterfly effect, only with calculators.
While Koepka was only remotely in contention for the title at the finale and not even in the FedExCup conversation, his late charge slightly altered the points so that Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas were projected in a tie for the lead in the season-long race.
JT vs. Jordan. Jordan vs. JT. It was only apropos that the 2016-17 season would come down to such a potentially dramatic and anticipated finish. Spieth with three victories and a major (The Open) and Thomas, a five-time winner including the PGA Championship, had spent the entire year one-upping each other and building on a friendship that began over a decade ago.
“I laughed when I saw it,” said Thomas of the tie that was projected on leaderboards across East Lake. “I thought honestly, this probably will happen and the golf world will completely blow up and lose its mind if Jordan and I were in a playoff for the FedExCup. I don't think anybody would have known what to do with themselves.”
In a fitting piece of foreshadowing, Spieth wondered earlier this week what it would be like to have to wait and watch as others decide your competitive fortunes, like then-points frontrunner Dustin Johnson had to last year at East Lake.
“It's tough,” he said on Tuesday. “I mean [Johnson] is sitting there not able to control a $7 million difference, like that doesn't happen anywhere else. It's like having a $7 million bet on a fight that you're not even taking part in.”
Instead, this particular convoluted fight featured a cast of eclectic characters.
Throughout all of its iterations, there has been a single unchanged theme to the playoffs – it takes a village to crown a FedExCup champion.
If Koepka was the one who tempted us with a possible $10 million showdown between Spieth and Thomas, it was Kevin Kisner’s birdie at the sixth to temporarily move into the lead by himself that propelled Spieth into the projected points hot seat. Forty-five minutes later, it was Tony Finau’s birdie to close his week that prompted an equally dramatic flip, with Thomas moving into the top spot.
You get the idea.
A game that invests so much in individual accomplishments turns into a crowd-sourcing experiment at the circuit’s big finish, and it was no surprise that it was the play of those on the periphery that had such an influence on the outcome.
Within an eight-minute window, Paul Casey, the overnight leader who struggled to a closing 73, and Kisner found the water with their tee shots at the par-3 15th hole and both made bogey, a twist that began to bring some much-needed clarity into the picture.
Throughout it all, Spieth – who began the week first on the points list – sat helpless as the scenarios and situations dictated his emotions, but it didn’t take long for his fate to be sealed. Less than 20 minutes after finishing his round, the last remnants of hope faded into the humid afternoon when Thomas birdied the 17th hole to take a share of the lead.
“I almost cheated my way into winning the FedExCup,” Spieth figured during what amounted to a concession speech with Thomas and eventual winner Xander Schauffele still on the course.
Instead, it was Thomas who had the longer wait after wrapping up the season-long title with a par at the 18th hole. From there, the Tour Championship came down to the presumptive Player of the Year vs. the presumptive Rookie of the Year.
Schauffele, who just three months ago was grinding away hoping to secure his Tour card for next season, made birdie at the last hole to become the first rookie to win the Tour Championship. But if the 23-year-old’s victory was something of a surprise to casual observers, it fit perfectly with his own tempered expectations for this week.
“I just feel very fortunate to even be here really starting off the week,” Schauffele said. “I was just happy to walk around the property, the Tour Championship, last 30 guys in the field. It was a very eerie vibe walking around and I just felt very lucky and here I am talking to you so I feel even luckier.”
For just the third time in the playoff era that began in 2007 the winner of the Tour Championship didn’t also take home the season-long trophy, and although his competitive zeal is quickly becoming legendary, Thomas took no small amount of solace in the $10 million consolation prize.
“Feels very weird,” said Thomas, who finished alone in second for his 12th top-10 finish of the season. “It's odd getting something so tremendous, one of my best achievements in my career without winning a golf tournament, so it feels different but it's still great.”
That Thomas likely wrapped up the Player of the Year Award on Sunday should also help soften the blow of coming up short at East Lake.
Nor can one ignore the significance of how the season ended, with the game’s two most consistent players battling until the very end with the high school Class of 2011 – Schauffele is also a member of that class, it should be noted – proving yet again how special and potentially historic this group can be.
As has become the status quo at the Tour Championship, the circuit’s finale is often a complicated collection of cause-and-effect relationships. Koepka birdies the 13th hole, two of the game’s titans are poised for a showdown; Finau birdies the 18th hole and Thomas readies for an eight-figure payday.
Confusing? No doubt. But don’t let the math or method detract from what was by any measure an epic season and ending by two singular players, even if it didn’t finish with an Internet-breaking showdown.