ATLANTA – On cue the competition has cut through all of the FedEx Cup confusion.
As they seem to each year at East Lake, the players have provided the competitive clarity endless projections never could. Forget the algorithms and complicated calculations, the Tour Championship has come down to a straightforward shootout – no slide rules or spreadsheets needed.
If the skies clear long enough on Sunday after two days of nearly nonstop rain the season-long race for the FedEx Cup will be decided with a single 18-hole showdown between Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson.
Oh sure, Paul Casey looming in third place could muddy the mathematical waters, but the Englishman stands as the exception to what is shaping up to be the rule.
In simplest and often repeated terms, Spieth and Stenson – who will head out again on Sunday paired together – control their own as well as the FedEx Cup destiny at Nos. 2 and 4, respectively, on the points list.
“This is how Bobby Jones would have wanted it here,” said Spieth, who rallied from three strokes back to begin his soggy Saturday to overtake Stenson atop the leaderboard with a third-round 68.
Spieth was referring to the conditions, which have been monsoon-like for the better part of two days, but East Lake’s most famous member also would have liked Sunday’s simplicity, as well as how the 54-hole front-runner arrived at his perch.
It was signature Spieth, scrambling for par when things didn’t go his way and rolling in a few miles of putts at the crucial moments, like his effort at the par-4 16th hole. That's where he charged in a 22-footer for par followed by the walk-off at No. 18 for birdie to wrest the lead from Stenson, who will begin Sunday’s conclusion one shot back.
“That was a tap-in, comparing it to the one he made on 16,” Stenson said when asked about Spieth’s putt at the last. “I was looking at the board [at No. 16] when he’s putting there and it said 20 to 25 feet, he’s making 24 percent and I thought, well it feels like it’s a bigger chance than 24 percent and he just rolled it right in the middle.”
The percentages of a clear-cut, non-controversial champion on Sunday are also much better than they may have appeared just a few days ago.
Both Spieth and Stenson can claim the FedEx Cup with a victory, regardless of how the rest of the decimal points play.
By comparison, a Casey victory could lead to mass confusion, with the Englishman claiming the big payday if Stenson finishes outside the top three, and Spieth slips outside the top five, and Jason Day, who began the week atop the points list, fades beyond the top 13, and ... well, you get the idea.
It was a reality that even Casey embraced.
“A five-year exemption and winner of the Tour Championship, some free Coca-Cola, it would all be nice,” Casey said. “I would love to stir the pot a little bit, get up there, win that, get in the clubhouse on a score they can’t reach and then let the guys battle for the big prize [FedEx Cup].”
For Spieth, who struggled to begin the playoffs with back-to-back missed cuts for the first time in his PGA Tour career, a victory would also quiet an equally confusing conversation regarding the Player of the Year Award.
Although the 22-year-old seemed to have locked up the Jack Nicklaus Award with his performance in this year’s majors, a run that included victories at the Masters and U.S. Open along with a runner-up showing at the PGA Championship and a spot just outside the playoff at St. Andrews, Day’s torrid run through the playoffs caused some voters, the players, to reconsider their options.
But a victory at East Lake would give anyone with doubts 10 million reasons to ship the Player of the Year hardware to Dallas, attention: Spieth, Jordan.
Yet while the electorate may need further clarity – and, to be clear, Day needed to win the FedEx Cup to be considered a true rival to Spieth in the Player of the Year race – Spieth wasn’t spending much energy on the topic.
“I don’t think I need tomorrow,” Spieth said. “No matter what, it’s a dream-come-true season. Two majors, a couple other wins, and what we have been able to do consistently this year, that’s a huge step up from anything I’ve ever done.”
There was also the issue of Spieth’s opponent, Stenson, in his Sunday singles match.
The “Iceman” gave little early on Saturday, playing his opening nine in even par to extend his lead to four strokes, but he made bogey at the 10th hole after missing the green with his approach shot and another at No. 11 when he three-putted and his lead was narrowed to a stroke.
Stenson added his fourth bogey of the day at the penultimate hole to square the proceedings and Spieth pulled ahead with his birdie at the last, but given the Swede’s history at East Lake one shouldn’t expect that kind of charity on Sunday.
In seven rounds on the Donald Ross-turned-Rees Jones-designed layout Stenson is a combined 20 under par, and he won the finale in 2013 by three strokes in a similar shootout.
“It’s all going to be decided tomorrow,” Stenson said.
Even better news for those who have become numb to the endless parade of projections it’s going to be decided in the simplest of terms – winner take all.