Stenson's hot start leaves FedEx Cup options open


ATLANTA – On Wednesday at East Lake, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, normally not the most effusive chief executive, leaned into his answer regarding the status of the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

“I think the points on the FedEx Cup are in good shape right now. And the system is doing exactly what it's supposed to do when you look at the top five coming into Atlanta,” he said.

A day later, with the circuit on the brink of what may turn into the Bridesmaid Cup, things didn’t appear as flawless as the commissioner seemed to suggest.

Essentially, the margin of error within the FedEx Cup projections after Day 1 at the Tour Championship was enough to cause migraines back at Tour headquarters with Henrik Stenson, who already has his name engraved into the silver chalice, poised to deliver what might be the circuit’s “nuclear scenario.”

Stenson, who won the finale and season-long race in 2013, stormed out to a two-stroke lead on Thursday with an opening 63, a position that has him projected to win the FedEx Cup.

Where things get concerning for those who crunch the numbers in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., is if Stenson were to finish in second place on Sunday, which – given a wide range of variables – would also lead to the Swede claiming the cup and $10 million payday without having won a Tour event this season.

“There's no one that's playing great and is sky high on confidence and no one with a bunch of majors and no one hits it 330 [yards] off the tee, so it shouldn't be that hard,” Stenson said on Tuesday with his tongue firmly planted in cheek when asked about the anomaly.

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On Tuesday, Stenson’s not-so-subtle nod to Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on the points list, took much of the wind out of the conversation. On Thursday, his 7-under card brought that option back into focus.

The scenarios for a potential no win/win for Stenson are relatively straightforward. He can finish alone in second place and win the cup if Day finishes outside the top four (he’s currently tied for 11th), and no player inside the top 10 on the points list wins the Tour Championship.

This is not the first time the nuanced arithmetic of the playoffs has caused a collective double take. In fact, it’s not even the first time this week the algorithms have astonished.

When Harris English, who after narrowly failing to qualify for the finale the last two years, completed his round of 71 at East Lake officials informed him that because Louis Oosthuizen withdrew on Thursday with a muscle strain the field had been reduced to 28 players.

“I can’t win the FedEx Cup,” English responded, aware that his only chance of collecting the cool $10 million was if he won and Day finished 29th or worse.

So much for the running dialogue that contends “anything can happen” at the finale.

The possibility of a non-winner FedEx Cup champion has cropped up with regularity nearly every year since the Tour began its postseason experiment in 2007, including in 2010 when Paul Casey arrived at East Lake winless for the season but poised at fifth on the points list (Stenson is currently fourth on the list).

For Casey, it’s all part of a system that seems to defy understanding at times.

“At The Barclays I felt that it was a little unfair that Jason Day had already leapfrogged Jordan Spieth after the very first week,” Casey said. “Now, I actually think it’s slightly unfair that we can all overtake Day the way he’s played the last three weeks.”

There is no easy fix, no silver bullet that would keep the bridesmaid scenario from ever happening. If there were, people with much bigger brains than your scribe would have thought of it already. It’s simply the nature of playoff golf, which has always felt like the item on the page that doesn’t belong.

Nor does Stenson have any reason for reticence over the maddening math. You know the deal - don’t hate the player, hate the game.

“If I were to finish second [at East Lake] and win the FedEx Cup I’m pretty sure I’ll be smiling on Sunday,” said Stenson, who was in a similar position in 2013 at the European Tour’s Race to Dubai finale but won that last start to quiet any concerns.

The problem rests squarely in the particulars of playoff golf, which will always walk the fine line between the importance of season-long performance and the inherent one-and-done reality of what in every other sport is a true postseason.

At his current clip Stenson, who was 8 under through 12 holes on Thursday before a bogey at the 17th hole, could infuse a monsoon of reason into this race with his second victory at East Lake in three years.

That, however, wouldn’t change the narrative that a Bridesmaid Cup is an unacceptable option.