NORTON, Mass. – A decade in, it’s not as though the PGA Tour’s postseason needs validation, at least not to those who pull the strings in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
In May, FedEx re-upped to sponsor the season-long race with a new 10-year deal, and the circuit is well downrange with a plan to condense the season and playoffs in order to finish before football overtakes the sporting landscape.
But in the event a refresher was necessary, Sunday at the Dell Technologies Championship was a testament to what playoff golf can do for the game for those not already lost to the first weekend of meaningful football.
Last week, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth dueled down the stretch at the playoff opener on Long Island, with DJ taking the title in overtime.
This week is shaping up to be a similar clash of the game’s biggest and brightest.
Justin Thomas, who closed the major championship season with a victory at the PGA Championship, moved into the lead with an 8-under 63, cruising past second-round leader Jon Rahm and into a familiar position.
What’s next? Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler squaring off at the BMW Championship in two weeks? Mickelson and Rahm head-to-head at the finale? The possibilities are endless.
This is nothing new to 2017. The list of champions at the TPC Boston stop includes Fowler, Mickelson and Rory McIlroy (twice).
While playoff golf has never been a perfect fit for a game that counts the majors above all else, consider Sunday’s third-round leaderboard at TPC Boston. Labor Day will feature a cast that includes Thomas, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, No. 2 Jordan Spieth, Fowler and Mickelson all within five strokes of the lead. And as we learned last week at The Northern Trust, when Spieth squandered the same margin, five shots is akin to a dead heat in the postseason.
“I just think that we treat these four events and Atlanta as a major,” Thomas said. “We are trying to be peaking at this time. We are trying to be peaking come Atlanta. We try to take time off before the majors. I took a week off before the playoffs to try to get my game ready to get rested and kind of get going.”
To Thomas’ point, perhaps postseason events wouldn’t hold the same zeal if they were regularly won by little-known players. But that hasn’t happened.
“Look at the winners of these playoff events. Last year, Rory [McIlroy] won here. You see these names, just the names that have won many times, come through and win in these style of events or major championship-type events,” Spieth said. “There is a heightened something to these playoff events that bring out certain champions, for the most part.”
That trend doesn’t appear to be in danger of ending this year.
Thomas – who would likely secure the Tour’s Player of the Year Award with a victory on Monday for his fifth title this season – will begin the final round tied with Marc Leishman at 12 under par. They're followed by Paul Casey a stroke back. From there, it’s a who’s who of Tour winners this season, with Johnson tied for seventh with Rahm.
Another made-for-the-highlight-reel shootout among the game’s biggest names isn’t guaranteed. Rookie Grayson Murray is tied at 10 under with third-year Tour player Adam Hadwin. Patrick Cantlay, who returned to the circuit this season after being slowed in recent years by a back injury, is at 8 under and could crash what is poised to be a heavyweight title bout.
But there’s no denying the stars are aligned, just as they were last week when Spieth and Johnson set out in the day’s final group.
“It's going to be a throw-down tomorrow,” said Spieth, who climbed into contention with a third-round 66. “It's going to be a completely different style of golf than we saw last week on Sunday.”
Although the names remain largely the same, this week’s venue, even with the controversial redesign of the 12th hole, is not Glen Oaks, the monster that hosted last week’s playoff opener.
Even Sunday’s blustery conditions that included periodic downpours and swirling winds, did little to slow scoring, with just one player (Rahm) within the top 10 failing to break 70.
“The scores were great today,” said Casey, who finished fifth last week in New York. “With the rain we had, it probably sets up for a complete shootout tomorrow with a soft golf course, which could be fun.”
Thomas made the most of the softer course, posting a playoff record 12 threes on Day 3 on his way to the week’s best round despite not making birdie on any of TPC Boston’s three par 5s.
“It's crazy to think I did that and parred all the par 5s. Played them even par,” Thomas said. “That's a little bit of a bummer, if I could somehow have a downside to the day.”
Although his ball-striking was solid on Sunday (16 of 18 greens in regulation), it was Thomas’ putter that allowed him to move into a share of the lead. He rolled in three putts of 25 feet or more, including a 49-footer at the 12th to record one of just six birdies on the hole Sunday. Thomas needed just 26 putts in total.
He’ll likely need a similar performance on Monday to hold off the star-studded pack that looms, but then history has proven that’s simply playoff golf.