ATLANTA — PGA Tour players rarely agree on anything, but on this there seems to be a consensus: They don’t like ladder scores at the Tour Championship.
Over the past few weeks, as the top 30 was finalized, the format was described by players as “odd” and “weird” and “weird”. Even defending champ and FedExCup winner Patrick Cantlay — $15 million richer — thinks the system is flawed.
“I’m not a fan,” he said.
However, what he said next was more important: “I think there has to be a better system, although, frankly, I don’t know what that better system is.”
Among the best players, he is not the only one to spot the flaws but not the fixes. “I said it recently: I don’t think it’s perfect,” Max Homa said. “But I don’t know what the answer is, so I’m not going to complain about it.”
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No, it’s not a perfect system – at least not like a real playoff – but it still works as intended.
The Tour’s task, after all, is twofold: it tries to crown a season champion while creating a compelling conclusion. Those two things don’t marry easily, and yet this system — for all its supposed quirks and quirks — comes the closest to achieving that goal.
This is year 4 of the tee shots format. The top seed has already won the grand prize twice. The only year he didn’t was in 2019, when Rory McIlroy took advantage of a slow start from Justin Thomas (who shot just 3 under for four rounds) by coming five strokes behind and blowing the course over 72 holes. It’s hard to say he didn’t deserve the one-season title: McIlroy won three times that season, including the Players’ Championship, and was later voted Player of the Year.
In 2020, Dustin Johnson, amid an all-weather heat, opened up a five-stroke 54-hole lead and earned a comfortable win that suited his dominant run.
Last year, it was a two-way race between the hottest player (Cantlay) and the star who statistically performed best all season (Jon Rahm). The finish was tense, with Cantlay trailing Rahm by one point after summoning a clutch approach shot into the closing par 5.
Rahm received world ranking credit for tying the lowest 72-hole total, but not the $15 million bonus that came with the win; he walked away with “only” $5 million. It’s no wonder he’s still smart a year later, recently calling the system “absolutely ridiculous”. Equally important, however, was his follow-up: “I think it’s good for what we have right now, because I don’t know what the solution is. Either way, you have to accept it, that’s what it is.
The action at East Lake may not always be dramatic, but too much volatility at the end creates the potential for flukiness. Too many dots and permutations cause confusion. The list of winners in bold from that era (McIlroy, Johnson, Cantlay) suggests that the format correctly identifies the best players who had good seasons and were then rightly rewarded at the end.
And it will still be the case on Sunday at the Tour Championship, whether it’s Scottie Scheffler or Xander Schauffele or one of the other fierce challengers who hoists the trophy on the 18th.e green.
Scheffler has won the Tour’s top four titles this season and, until the playoffs opened, he had been atop the points standings for months. He was the regular season leading scorer with over 1,200 points, the equivalent of two major wins. With Cameron Smith nearly a dozen shots behind here in the season finale, the top-ranked Scheffler is a lock for player of the year when the ballots come out next week.
But a FedExCup wreath would also go atop the Schauffele dome. A winner twice this season – and against above-average fields at the Travelers and the Scottish Open – he has been in full flight all summer. In the past three months, according to Data Golf, Schauffele is third in true strokes gained, and no one in the past five years has lived up to his production at East Lake.
“With a 72-hole event, it’s still pretty early in the tournament,” Scheffler said, “and right now I think we’re all maneuvering for position.”
When Scheffler sprinted to a seven-stroke lead midway through the second round, there was a collective whimper from the spot. Suddenly, it seemed, the grand finale was a siesta – all the drama had been snuffed out.
“That’s what I was afraid of – someone would run away with this, and what will the TV numbers be?” Billy Horschel said midway through the second round. “Obviously the fans will come out, but the energy won’t be there. No one is going to watch if a guy has an eight shot lead. Do I really want to watch this?
Homa, however, took a different angle: “I actually think Scottie makes it ridiculously easy. It could get boring, but it could have been boring regardless because Scottie is pretty good.
Of course, the tenor of this tournament changed dramatically in the final 45 minutes on Friday. Needing a charge, Schauffele secured the weekend’s intrigue by playing his final three holes at 4 under par, including a sensational shot from 5 feet on the 18e hole that cut his halfway deficit to two strokes.
During a weather-delayed third lap, Scheffler and Schauffele failed to separate from each other or the rest of the field. Once resembling a runaway, the Tour Championship now features the world No. 1 ahead by a single shot, with seven players (including McIlroy, Thomas and Rahm) all within five strokes of the lead.
For the fourth consecutive year, the Tour has achieved its desired mission: this year’s best player in golf clings to the lead, with a host of worthy challengers chasing him in a championship test.
Not bad for a supposedly flawed system.