Most casual golf fans assume that all professional golf is PGA Tour golf. When in actuality the PGA Tour has nothing to do with any of the game’s four biggest events. The biggest tournament on the PGA Tour is the Player’s Championship. It has the best field of the year – only PGA touring professionals – and an outsized purse. The PGA Tour has shed sweat and tears to get the golfing public to accept the Player’s Championship as the “fifth major.” That has never happened. Does anyone remember who won this year’s Player Championship?
The other big showcase for PGA Tour golf is the season-ending Tour Championship. With the year concluding in the middle of football season, the PGA Tour has struggled to contrive a format to crowbar even a few headlines from the action of the gridiron. The current format makes the Tour Championship two competitions in one – the culmination of a season-long points race known as the FedEx Cup (with another out-sized check of $10 million waiting for the winner) and the four-day golf tournament known as the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. In the Tour’s preferred scenario, it would be writing both checks to the same person. In its wildest dreams, the Tour would get the two top players competing for the FedEx Cup, this year Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, dueling for the Tour Championship tournament title on the final day.
East Lake Golf Club – Where PGA Tour Officials’ Dreams Go to Die
The PGA Tour not only did not get its dream finish to the 2017 season but it got the type of tournament that stymies fan interest. Entering the Tour Championship were five players who could win the FedEx Cup by winning the tournament – Spieth, Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Mark Leishmann, and Jon Rahm. For the first three days, none were near the top of the leaderboard where players like Paul Casey and Kevin Kisner resided.
Of the year’s top players, Thomas was the closest as he entered Sunday tied for fourth place at -7. He was five shots behind Casey and three behind Kisner and Xander Schaufelle. Like Thomas, Schaufelle is 23 years old, but PGA Champion Thomas admitted he did not know much about the unassuming rookie from California. “He’s very good, or he wouldn’t be here,” concluded Thomas. In fact, Schaufelle needed to play his final six holes in six under par in Chicago in the season’s penultimate event just to qualify for the Tour Championship in Atlanta.
A Spot of Drama to Close Out 2017
On Sunday, Kisner and Casey melted off the leaderboard leaving Thomas and Schaufelle to determine how the bulk of the $34 million in prize money and bonuses would be determined. Spieth briefly stuck his head into the FedEx Cup battle, but a missed 14-foot birdie putt on the home hole, essentially made Justin Thomas the $10 million FedEx Cup winner and likely Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Thomas was still on the course battling Schaufelle for the Tour Championship title.
Thomas shot a 66 to make up most of his deficit but ultimately lost when Xander Schaufelle wished in a three-foot birdie putt on the home hole to win by one stroke. One year ago, Schaufelle was toiling on the Web.com Tour, and in June he was 134th in FedEx Cup point standings. With his victory, he finished third in points and put a stranglehold on Rookie of the Year honors. His runner-up finish pushed Thomas ahead of Spieth to win the Arnold Palmer Award for top money winner as the 2017 PGA season ended with two celebrants.
The last time one player won the FedEx Cup and a different player won the Tour Championship was 2009, and those names were Tiger Woods (FedEx Cup) and Phil Mickelson (Tour Championship). The names Thomas and Schaufelle have a much different ring to them, and the two champions-in-one-event format may be running its course. There is talk that the Tour Championship may become an 18-hole shootout with a select group of top players all gunning for the top $10 million prize in a single round. Time will tell if the PGA Tour can hit upon a truly compelling season-ending formula.