In the annals of golf, 2016 is going to go down as the year of the Olympics. In my showreel, that birdie which Justin Rose drilled in on the 72nd hole in Rio to edge out Henrik Stenson for the gold was the highlight of the year. Rose, unlike many of his contemporaries, was hugely enthused and involved with the Games. He was there, self-admittedly, not to win a tournament or a cheque, but an Olympic medal. The Englishman was fascinated by the prospect of going down in history as the first golfer in the modern era to compete and win in the biggest sporting spectacle in the world. In a perfect world, that really should have been the end of the playing season for 2016. Professional golfers play golf to make a living. It’s as simple as that, and that week at the Olympics elevated the game back into the realm of pure sport.
Given that momentous occasion, and its significant afterglow, it’s only natural that the FedEx Cup’s season-ending Playoffs seem like a ho-hum affair. The distinction between professional golf’s proverbial pot of gold—in this case, a cool $10 million to the winner—and the intangible prestige of the Games couldn’t be starker. Beleaguered since its establishment in 2007—first by a clunky point scoring system and later by a lack of clarity on rankings—the FedEx Cup hasn’t exactly had a stellar run, but this year, its allure has been significantly diminished by the Games. That being what it is, your columnist would highly recommend shaking off the ennui for one last hurrah at the finale—the Tour Championship—the final round of which will be played tonight. Thirty of the best players on the planet are vying for the biggest cash prize in golf and, given the complexities of the scoring system, there are at least five players who could come out on top.
In case you missed the events, here’s how things have panned out in the Playoffs: Patrick Reed pulled a rabbit out of the bag to put it past world number one Jason Day and a rampaging Sean O’Hair to win the Barclays by a shot. Conventional wisdom suggests that it doesn’t help to sit on top of the FedEx Cup rankings at the onset of the Playoffs, but Reed has done well at the ensuing tournaments to stay within grasping distance of the Cup—he’s ranked second right now.
After the all-round panning that he took for skipping the Olympics, Rory McIlroy went about business as usual by commandeering the field at the Deutsche Bank Championship. With a six-under 65 in the final round, the Ulsterman once again put himself in a good place to have a crack at the Cup, leapfrogging from 38th spot to fourth.
At the penultimate event—the BMW Championship—Dustin Johnson, the US Open winner and the bookies’ favourite going into the Playoffs—justified his top billing by amassing an insurmountable cumulative 23-under-par to go into this week as the top-ranked player. The last player to come into the Tour Championship in the top spot and win was Tiger Woods back in 2009. With three wins this season, including his first Major, DJ has already wrapped up the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year award. The 9 to 2 favourite will win the Cup even if he gets a top-five tonight, provided none of the top 10 players win. In fact, mathematically speaking, DJ can finish as low as 29th and still have a chance to win the Cup. It’s all very confusing, but here’s the gist: besides DJ, if Reed, Adam Scott, Day or Paul Casey win the Tour Championship, they’ll take the FedEx Cup as well.
If McIlroy wins the tournament, he’ll win the Cup if Johnson finishes tied-second or worse. And let’s not forget reigning champion Jordan Spieth. The youngster has done well to enter this week ranked seventh in the standings. No one has won back-to-back FedEx Cups, but Spieth has an excellent record at East Lake GC: a runner-up (2013) and win (2015) in three appearances. Spieth has won twice this year, but critics have viewed his year through the skewed prism of a spectacular 2015. Winning the Cup would give the talented putter precisely the sort of vindication he’s looking for.
Spare a thought, too, for the most notable player missing from the field: Rickie Fowler. The colourful American needed either a birdie or a bogey from JB Holmes on the final hole on Sunday at the BMW Championship to get into the field, but Holmes made par and put Fowler out. That has put the US Team’s Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III in a spot: Love will select three of his four picks tomorrow, and Fowler was considered a sure-shot selection.
That’s going to get a bit hard to justify since Fowler isn’t one of the top 30 on the PGA Tour, but I’d put my money on him making the grade when Love announces his choices. And if that stirs controversy, it’s a good thing for the game: the big-money events are what they are, but if top golfers are passionate about making the Ryder Cup team—where again, the fight is not about a big purse, or individual honours, but the honour of playing for your country (and continent)—then that’s precisely the spirit professional golf needs to nurture. But that’s the bigger picture. Tonight,
make sure you set an early-morning alarm to catch the final moments of the season-ending finale. It promises to be a riveting affair.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game