WILMINGTON, Del. – Adam Scott sat two shots off the lead Sunday but knew he had little margin for error.
Sahith Theegala was so nervous warming up on the range that he had trouble holding the club.
K.H. Lee felt the cruelty of being the first man out and didn’t want to experience it again.
All three played their way into the season-ending Tour Championship – but not without a Sunday sweat at Wilmington Country Club.
“I guess that’s the beauty of the FedExCup Playoffs the way they are,” Scott said. “You can scratch it around a lot for the year and have a couple good weeks and get heavily rewarded by getting to East Lake and being in the top 30 and all the perks that come with it.”
And those perks are significant, not just the exemptions into three of the four majors in 2023 but, most immediately, a shot at the $18 million first-place prize next week in Atlanta. That makes Scott’s gutsy bunker shot on the 72nd hole worth at least $500,000 – or the equivalent of a last-place showing next week in the season finale.
Searching for his first win since early 2020, Scott held the 36-hole lead at the BMW Championship but couldn’t keep pace on the final day with eventual champion Patrick Cantlay and surprise contender Scott Stallings. After failing to make birdie on 17, Scott had given up any idea of winning. Still, as he stood on the 18th tee, he felt a rush of adrenaline – there was still so much to play for.
On the closing hole, his tee shot hung up in the tangly rough outside the left bunker, leaving him an awkward stance with his feet in the bunker but his ball well above him. Choking down on a 54-degree wedge, Scott took an unbalanced slash, his ball shooting immediately left of the green and plopping into the bunker. Now he had to get up-and-down from 34 yards to secure his spot – though he admitted he wasn’t fully aware of the repercussions.
“I knew there probably was not a lot of wiggle room,” he said.
But Scott deftly splashed out to 2 feet and saved par, locking down the 29th spot with a tie for fifth – his second consecutive top-5 in these playoffs to become the only player who played his way into each of the final two events.
Now 42, Scott has competed in all of these FedExCups, each edition only getting more difficult to navigate as the game gets younger and his own priorities shift. This playoff run in particular has been reinvigorating for the aging warrior.
“I feel like I was playing at that high, high level again,” he said, “and I haven’t been in so many of those situations this year. But I felt like my game stacked up, and I felt like a top player.”
Theegala didn’t possess that same self-belief, even as he contended deep into the Phoenix Open and Travelers in a rookie season that exceeded his highest expectations. He began the week inside the top-30 bubble but had fallen out by the time he was wrapping up his third round. Typically wild off the tee (he hit just 25% of his fairways this week), he almost seemed resigned to his fate, telling caddie Carl Smith: “It’s incredible how much better I could get.”
Still, a career-changing opportunity awaited Sunday.
“I had a little bit of the shakes warming up,” he said. “I couldn’t hold my hands still. … I’m in 30th place out of 70 people, and I’m as nervous as I were near the lead.”
Theegala found only one fairway on Sunday, but he still managed four birdies in a six-hole span late on the back nine. After (of course) another wild drive on the final hole, he relied on his soft hands to get up-and-down from the front of the green, rolling in a 7-footer for par.
When he finished his round, he was safely in the green but far from secure; the final groups were just making the turn.
“It would mean everything,” he said. “The validation of the season, it’s another step for me to feel like I really belong, because I still don’t feel like I’m really there at the top of the game.”
Whatever happened, Theegala said, he was proud that he “left it all out there” and didn’t retreat late. He’d tied for 15th, after all, against the best players of this Tour season.
“It feels a little better to get some closure today,” he said. “Whether or not I advance, I felt like I fully closed it.”
After his media obligations, Theegala retired to the clubhouse to sip a Diet Coke watch the rest of the final round unfold.
There was plenty to keep him entertained.
A year ago, Lee had finished as the odd man out, No. 31 on the points list despite winning his first Tour title at the Byron Nelson. He went back-to-back in Dallas this year, and once again he found himself challenging for one of the final spots at East Lake.
“(No.) 31 is a really cruel spot,” he said.
Determined to finish at least one spot better, he ripped off four birdies in a row to start on his way to a Sunday 65 (the low round of the day) that vaulted him all the way into a tie for fifth in the BMW – and No. 26 in the points standings.
“Definitely way more happy,” Lee said.
Not everyone had a Sunday to remember.
Tantalizing rookies Tom Kim and Davis Riley both tumbled out of the top 30. Mullinax’s dream summer came to an end. And even a veteran like Shane Lowry was left to ponder what could have been.
Even though he won a major in 2019 and has become a top-50 staple, Lowry has never reached the Tour’s grand finale. Because he’s also a DP World Tour member, the Irishman was making just his 18th start on the PGA Tour. (Lee, for example, was playing his 27th event.) Had he logged a few more appearances, no doubt, Lowry said, “I’m guaranteed to be there next week.”
Instead, he was grinding, and he needed some help to advance.
“It was so weird out there today,” he said. “It was like trying to make a cut on a Sunday, and I’m also trying to do well in the tournament. It was a strange feeling.”
Never stranger than on the 72nd hole, when Lowry busted a drive down the right edge of the fairway, leaving him just 95 yards to the flag in a must-birdie scenario.
“It was an absolute perfect number,” he said, “and I look up – and the scoreboard is right behind the flag – and it says, Shane Lowry, 30, right beside my name. It’s like, OK, then.”
And Lowry blinked, unable to get his wedge shot closer than 22 feet. His birdie try failed to drop.
That meant he was the first man out, No. 31, by 19 measly points.
“That’s the disappointing part of it,” he said. “I feel like there’s a lot of things that didn’t go my way this season. I had a few chances to win that I didn’t get over the line, but all in all, it’s been a pretty good year without a win.”
With Lowry out of the way, and with Stallings contending for the BMW title and jumping all the way to 12th in the standings, the final Tour Championship berth was Aaron Wise’s to lose – and, for a while, he tried to give it away.
In an uneven final round, Wise carded two double bogeys and dropped another shot on the 16th hole when he left his 10-footer on the edge of the cup.
“I kind of assumed, honestly, that I had fallen out and that I needed to birdie 17 or 18 to get back in,” he said.
Wise missed a 13-footer on 17 that would have given him a little breathing room, and then he pulled his drive into the fairway bunker on the home hole. But he made crisp contact from the sand, his ball hanging onto the back edge of the green, 30 feet away.
“Walking up to the green,” he said, “I looked at my caddie and I’m like, ‘I think we need birdie, right?’”
No – the board behind the green still projected him at 30th.
“Two-putt,” his caddie said, “and I think you’re in.”
Wise cozied his putt to within kick-in range to snag the 30th and final spot.
At first, he was relieved – his closing 73 was the worst score of any player in the top 25.
Then, the satisfaction set in.
It’s Wise’s second trip to East Lake, but this one holds even more significance. His Tour Championship debut came in 2018, his first full season on Tour, when he won the Nelson and scattered three other top-10s in a busy season. After two lean years, he turned his ball-striking into a strength and, thanks to the long putter, helped shore up his stroke on the greens. He’s played the best golf of his life this season and missed only five cuts, a career best.
“This time I did it without a win,” he said. “So it’s even more sweet to be in that elite field without having a win this year.”
For the nervy contenders vying for the last few spots Sunday, simply making the final field felt like a victory.