Criticized in the past for failing to identify the best player, the FedExCup might not have that problem this year.
Check out the top 5 in the points standings and the Official World Golf Ranking. Their positions are different, but the players – Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm – are the same.
The cream is rising to the top this postseason.
Part of it is fortuitous timing, the best playing their best at the right time, but other factors are involved, too. Those near the top of the standings have a sense of freedom, focused more on contending than a cutoff for the top 30, 70 or 100. Big-game experience also helps – these guys know how to handle pressure and win important titles.
And then there’s this: “We treat these three events and Atlanta as a major,” Thomas said. “We are trying to be peaking this time.”
So much can change over the next two weeks, of course, but the start to these playoffs couldn’t have gone much better for the Tour.
For years, Camp Ponte Vedra pushed the narrative that the FedExCup crowned a season-long champion. That was a tough sell, however, when wild points’ fluctuations allowed Bill Haas (2011), Brandt Snedeker (2012) and Billy Horschel (2014) to seemingly come out of nowhere and bag the $10 million prize, leaving those who had better seasons to scratch their heads. Even last year, there was a dreaded scenario in which Paul Casey, who entered the Tour Championship at No. 5 in the standings, could walk away with the cup without a win that season.
Maybe that happens this year – we’re looking at you, once again, Mr. Casey – but it doesn’t seem likely. The last 10 playoff events have been won by some of the game’s biggest stars: Thomas, Johnson (twice), Rory McIlroy (twice), Patrick Reed, Spieth, Jason Day (twice) and Rickie Fowler.
To kick off this year’s postseason, Johnson overcame a five-shot deficit at the Northern Trust, forcing a playoff with Spieth and then overpowering him on the first extra hole. But even more important for the Tour: Fans were paying attention. No, the cup likely won’t ever generate the same level of interest as the majors, but the final round on Long Island had the fourth-best TV rating for a non-major this year, and the best at that event since 2013 (when needle-mover Tiger Woods contended).
On Labor Day, Thomas overtook Spieth on the back nine – signaling, perhaps, the beginning of a compelling rivalry – to win the second playoff event and solidify his case as PGA Tour Player of the Year.
The off-week may have halted some of the postseason momentum, but the current top 5 in points – which, as a reminder, aligns with the players in the top 5 in the world ranking – should have no shortage of motivation these next two weeks.
Thomas has been this season’s breakout star, powering his way to five wins, including the PGA, and finally emerging from the considerable shadow of Spieth, his longtime friend and healthy rival.
It seems the only two players who could steal Thomas’ Player of the Year votes are Spieth and Johnson.
Spieth has three wins this season (including the year’s most memorable major) and three runners-up, owns the best scoring average (68.8) and has only one less top-10 than Thomas while playing two fewer events. Boston was a missed opportunity, however, and now Spieth likely needs to win out to take the Jack Nicklaus Trophy.
Fair or not, 2017 will always be remembered as a bittersweet year for Johnson, who has won four times (second-most on Tour) but can’t help but wonder what could have been if he didn’t injure his lower back on the eve of the Masters. Lest we forget: This spring, DJ evoked memories of Woods the way he steamrolled his competition.
Assessing Johnson’s Player of the Year chances is more difficult, because the award is voted on by his peers, who, if history is any indication, significantly weight major victories. His four victories include two World Golf Championships, a playoff event and the tournament at Riviera, which boasts one of the strongest non-major fields of the year. If he takes the final two events – getting to six wins overall, and bookending his campaign with the best golf we’ve seen all year – then he deserves serious Player of the Year consideration, too.
As for the rest of the top 5? Matsuyama has had a quiet playoffs so far, dropping a few spots in the standings after getting his heart broken at the PGA, while Rahm, who just 15 months ago had no status on any tour, ascended to No. 5 in the world (and the FedExCup) on the strength of an early-season victory and eight other top-10s, including back-to-back top-4s to start the playoffs.
Considering their form this year, any of those five players would be a satisfying season-long winner.
Just as the PGA Tour designed it.