Dark horses lurking at East Lake

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ATLANTA – The point of the FedExCup Playoffs was never about doling out an eight-figure check or giving players a reason to learn long division, it was about tidy finishes.

Prior to the playoff experiment, which began in 2007, there were too many years when players arrived with the year’s biggest questions long answered. Think of it as an all-star game without the home run derby, or any meaningful outcome.

The PGA Tour wanted a big finish where players vied for the season’s most meaningful accomplishments, non-major championship division, with a decisive conclusion.

The result has been a work-in-progress, but has largely delivered on that promise.

Consider that in 2006, Tiger Woods had won eight times, including The Open and PGA Championship, and had wrapped up the money title and Player of the Year Award. And what did he do at East Lake? Nothing, he didn’t play. He didn’t need to.

Even in the FedExCup era there were early growing pains that kept the finale from being the desired send-off.

In 2011, Luke Donald finished tied for third at the finale following a phenomenal season, but the Englishman still needed a walk-off win at the Disney event a few weeks later, a windfall worth $846,000, to clip Webb Simpson by $335,000 for the cash crown (remember when the money title meant something?)

But those quirks have slowly been removed from the equation. First the Tour introduced the wraparound season and then crunched the postseason points so that those who had played the most consistent year would have a distinct advantage.

Clean, consistent, calculated, right?

Well, Friday’s leaderboard at East Lake paints a slightly different picture.


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Current FedExCup Playoff points standings


Although Justin Thomas – whose second-round 66 left him tied for the lead with Paul Casey and Simpson – could restore order to the Tour’s postseason with a victory on Sunday that would assure him the cup and the Jack Nicklaus Award, there are enough would-be dark horses looming to make things interesting.

“I like to play spoiler,” Casey said with a mischievous smile.

Casey has been in this position before. In fact, he was the potential author of what Tour types would consider the “nuclear option” in 2010 when he needed only a runner-up finish at East Lake to claim the cup without having won that season.

“That would have been very wrong to win the FedExCup not winning an event, but I would have had no issue with it,” laughed Casey, who is 10th on the postseason points list.

Simpson would be an even bigger Cinderella at 16th on the playoff points list and through two steady rounds (66-67) he’s poised as the ultimate party crasher.

 “I think guys are probably looking at hey, what are the scenarios that could possibly pull a Bill Haas or whatever it may be,” Jordan Spieth said.

Haas famously began the 2011 Tour Championship 25th on the peculiar points list but rallied at East Lake for the title and the cup to become the 1969 “Miracle Mets” of golf’s postseason.

But then Haas’ par save from East Lake - the actual lake - on the 71st hole isn’t happening this year after record rains in the Atlanta area, and for this year’s Cinderella to prevail they will need an assist from the game’s best and brightest: Spieth, Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Marc Leishman and Jon Rahm, the five horsemen who arrived at the finale in the theoretical pole positions – Nos. 1 through 5 on the points list, respectively.

Each can claim the cup with a victory at the Tour Championship, but more to the complicated point they could walk away with the oversized check with a vast assortment of middle-of-the-pack showings.

Spieth could “mathematically” win with a finish as low as 29th, out of 30; and Thomas could fade all the way to sixth and still be in the equation.

But if the scenario of someone outside the coveted top 5 winning the proclaimed season-long race offends the competitive senses of some, it does, and has, made for a unique style of golf each September at East Lake.

Even the most reserved player embraces an added sense of urgency at the Tour Championship, where there is literally no reason to play the safe shot or temper one’s expectations.

“There's no next week for me,” said Gary Woodland, who is tied for fourth place after starting the week 28th on the points list. “We're out here, we're playing aggressive, trying to get the ball in the fairway and then attacking from there. We're definitely playing more aggressive this week than we have all year, which is nice. That's probably why I'm playing well.”

Any number of players could play spoiler this week – from Justin Rose (No. 8) who is tied with Woodland to rookie Xander Schauffele (No. 26), who is in a group at 5 under – and on this history is rather clear.

Just twice in the playoff era has the winner of the Tour Championship not won the FedExCup, but as the postseason has evolved the finale has proven to be exceedingly good at delivering on its original promise – a clean finish.