Approach view walking into No.18 at East Lake Golf Club
Thirty men enter, one man leaves. THIRTY MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES! There won’t be any steel bars, medieval weapons, or players climbing to the top of a cage wall intent on inflicting maximum suffering at the Tour Championship this week, but the competition will still be intense, agonizing, and ultimately triumphant as East Lake Golf Club becomes the PGA Tour’s version of Thunderdome with the FedEx Cup trophy and $10 million up for grabs in Atlanta.
Jordan Spieth can become the first player to win the FedEx Cup without actually winning a playoff event, and in the process join Tiger Woods as the only player to win the trophy twice. Justin Thomas can lock up Player of the Year honors with a victory, and author the biggest single-season win total since Woods in 2007. To put a potential sixth win for Thomas in perspective, Jack Nicklaus’ highest single-season win total was 7. Dustin Johnson, Marc Leishman, and Jon Rahm all control their own destiny with a victory at East Lake, but everyone in the field, including eight first-timers and two rookies, have a fighting chance to win the cup if the top players falter even slightly.
East Lake is a 7,385-yard, par-70, Donald Ross design built on gently rolling hills, and is the former home of Bobby Jones. It’s a parkland layout that plays hard and fast, and urges players to hit different shot shapes to take full advantage of certain holes. Despite being a fairly long course, bombers don’t really have an advantage here. You can miss fairways at East Lake, but not by much, and with only two par-5s on the course, there’s an obvious emphasis on par-3 and par-4 scoring. Some of the Bermuda greens feature severe slopes, while others present only subtle breaks to navigate. Players won’t find any quirky holes, aggravating blind shots, or unexpected surprises at East Lake. The recipe for success is straightforward: accuracy off the tee combined with a stellar short game. Key statistics looking at past winners include Birdie Or Better Percentage, Strokes Gained: Putting, and Bogey Avoidance. For The Tour Championship, the front and back nine routing is flipped, with the long par-3 18th hole becoming No. 9, and the par-5 9th hole becoming No. 18 for more fireworks and drama at the end.
Lakeside view of No.15 at East Lake Golf Club
The par-4, 471-yard, 8th hole made FedEx Cup history in 2011 when Bill Haas got up and down from the water hazard during a playoff, before scrambling on the final hole to win. Water runs down the entire left side on No. 8 with the fairway sloping back in its direction. Finding any of the three bunkers 265 to 310 yards off the tee brings the water into play even more on approach. A steep slope fronts the green, water protects the back, and deep bunkers surround the raised putting surface that kicks everything (you guessed it) to the left and towards the water. This can be an absolutely brutal hole.
No. 15 was the first island green designed in America, and this par-3, 211-yard hole is always action-packed with disaster waiting to happen. The table-top green is surrounded by a massive lake, and this already challenging target is made more demanding by a large bunker on the left. The tee is set to the far right making it difficult to control a draw, and maddening to play a fade. Par is a great score on No. 15 where the there’s a fine line between the hero shot and catastrophe. Or as Aunty Entity might have said, “death is listening, and will take the first man who screams.”
GPS flyover view of No.15 at East Lake Golf Club
Rolling down a hill from a tee box at the top, the par-5, 600-yard 18th hole will be reachable in two for the longest hitters, particularly if they reach the downward kick point in the left fairway that can propel a ball like it’s turbo-charged. Players will need to be wary however of a lake that cuts across the fairway about 380 yards out. Two deep bunkers protect the front-right entrance of the green, which slopes left. While a sweeping bunker on the front-left will punish distance control blunders. No. 18 will be a site of triumph and disaster this week, and might even determine the FedEx Cup champion on Sunday.
Players To Watch
Jordan Spieth is the popular choice to win The Tour Championship, and even a strong performance without victory can secure a second FedEx Cup title for the reigning Champion Golfer of the Year. Spieth’s first on Tour in Bogey Avoidance and second in Birdie Or Better Percentage. When you consider seven of the previous 10 winners at East Lake ranked inside the top-3 in Putting Average during the event, and Jordan’s ranked second this year in that category, that seems to suggest he’s like a lock to win this week. However, in the other key metric, Strokes Gained: Putting, Spieth’s only ranked 30th, and I expect at least one-third of the field to give themselves some really good looks at birdies all week. Spieth’s form at East Lake has been a mixed bag, winning in 2015 and finishing second in 2013, but finishing T-17 in 2016 and T-27 in 2014. And while I wouldn’t steer anyone completely away from Spieth this week, I don’t see him doing enough on the greens to win The Tour Championship or FedEx Cup (odd-numbered year success aside). Spieth will play well, it’s just that others will play better. Look for Spieth to finish between 5th and 10th.
In its 10-year history, only Tiger and Billy Horschel have won the final two playoff events en-route to winning the FedEx Cup, and Marc Leishman’s arguably in stronger current form this year than Woods and Horschel were in 2007 and 2014 respectively. Over the first two rounds last week at the BMW Championship, Leishman birdied more than half the holes he played. He’s posted scores of 67-under or better in five of his last eight playoff rounds. His putting has been absolutely clutch of late. However, seven of the last 10 winners at East Lake were ranked inside the top-8 in Driving Accuracy, and if there’s a weakness in Leishman’s game right now it’s keeping the ball in play off the tee. Leishman’s ranked 127th on Tour in that department, and only hit 50-percent of the fairways last week in the final round. That’s not to say I expect Protracer to have some fun at Marc’s expense this week, but he’s going to need four consistently good rounds with the driver to win, and I don’t see him doing that. Leishman will finish between 5th and 10th.
The last seven winners of the FedEx Cup have also won the Tour Championship, and Rickie Fowler will make that eight consecutive winners this week. Fowler is third on Tour in Birdie Average, second in Strokes Gained: Putting, and is playing with a leave-no-doubt kind of guts that shows he wants to win more than anyone out here. Case in point: his red-hot, driver off the deck Sunday on No. 18 at the BMW Championship in a gritty attempt to position himself inside the top-5 in points coming into Atlanta). Rickie’s played inspired golf since August, with three top-10 finishes in 5 events starting with the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and he’s also trending in the right direction in the three playoff events so far, finishing T-20, T-13, and T-2. At this point in the season, current form trumps all the statistics, and if you believe further (like I do) that heart and grit will win this event, then Fowler’s your guy. Fowler wins the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup this week, and I’m going to be the first in line to get my Rickie FedEx Cup champion bobblehead.