Golf’s biggest names primed for PGA Tour’s Ultimate Prize

Filepic Brand Snedekar PGA TourHis professional golf career was still in the learning-to-walk stages back in 2007 and Brandt Snedeker paid nothing but great respect to a landscape that was dominated by iconic veterans – Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Vijay Singh ranked 1-2-3 on the money list; Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, and Mark Calcavecchia were fourth, seventh and 13th, respectively.

Ah, but the second-year player, then just 26, felt he was on par with all those veterans when it came to what was new on the PGA TOUR that year – the FedExCup Playoffs.

“It’s very rare that everybody in the golf world is a rookie at something and we’re all rookies this week,” said Snedeker, right before that year’s Playoff opener, The Barclays.

“It’s pretty exciting.”

It was an acknowledgment that the PGA TOUR needed what professional team sports had – a definitive end to its season with the Playoffs to crown a champion. It was new, yes, but a funny thing has happened: the FedExCup Playoffs, like that young child you brought into the world, has grown up in the blink of an eye. This will be the 15th edition.

Yes, crazy. But as the proverb says, time waits for no golfer.

So even as Woods has aged with a roller-coaster of emotions, Stricker has total focus on his Ryder Cup captaincy, and Singh and Furyk are confirmed members of the PGA TOUR Champions, the FedExCup Playoffs push on.

Mickelson, of course, is also over 50, only he hasn’t accepted that he should be playing with kids his own age.

But when you look at the upcoming playoffs through a variety of lenses, this is what jumps out at you: Whereas in 2007 nearly the entire 125-player field consisted of those who had grown up in a PGA TOUR without a postseason, the huge majority of this year’s qualifiers have never known professional golf life without the FedExCup.

That is a priceless commodity for the PGA TOUR. Instead of selling something new, as had to happen 14 years ago, there is no pitch needed anymore. These players have the FedExCup Playoffs circled on the calendar at the start of their year, so the credibility is a given.

What has also changed – and for the betterment of the global strength of the game – is the makeup of the leading contenders in the FedExCup. With only one regular-season tournament, this week’s Wyndham Championship, left before the Playoffs commence, the average age of the top 10 players is 28.7, whereas in 2007 it was 34.2.

This looms large, because in nine of the previous 14 FedExCup Playoffs, the overall winner started postseason play ranked in the top 10. Looking at the current top 10, it’s easy to envision any of the top five – Collin Morikawa, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantlay, Harris English, or Jon Rahm – taking home the mega-rich (US$15 million) first place prize. Then again, Nos. 6 through 10 – Abraham Ancer, Bryson DeChambeau, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Thomas, and Sam Burns – bring impeccable credentials to the table and would not be a surprise winner.

The key to success, of course, is adhering to the words Tiger Woods – the FedExCup champion in each of the first three years, plus in 2012 and 2013 – was fond of saying: “Winning takes care of everything.”

That is especially true now, because in 2019 the PGA TOUR implemented a simple wrinkle – win the TOUR Championship and you win the FedExCup title. No split decisions, like in 2018 when Woods won the TOUR Championship, but Justin Rose became the first player to ever win the FedExCup title without having won a Playoff tournament.

That rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way, so as the Playoffs get set to tee off – THE NORTHERN TRUST in New York, Aug. 19-22; the BMW Championship in Baltimore, Aug. 26-29; the TOUR Championship, Sept. 2-5 – let’s remember that it’s not a bad time for someone to get hot like Dustin Johnson in 2020.

Situated in 17th place in the FEC standings, Johnson won both THE NORTHERN TRUST and TOUR Championship to earn his first FEC.

It’s important to note, however, that only 30 of the 125 playoff qualifiers will make it into the TOUR Championship, and that once you get to the finale, a staggered scoring format will be in effect. No. 1 in the FedExCup standings will start the tournament at 10-under, No. 2 at 8-under, No. 3 at 7-under and on it goes till the last five qualifiers are started at level par.

In other words, it behooves you to play consistently well in the playoffs and therein lies the reason why you can advance the 2020-21 FedExCup Playoffs with a spotlight on four names:

* Morikawa, 24, is the points leader thanks to his win at the Open Championship, but he’s been brilliant all season, with eight top 10 finishes, including a World Golf Championship victory at the Workday Championship. He was also in a playoff for a bronze medal at the Summer Olympics. Everything about his demeanor convinces you he cannot possibly play poorly. He could, of course, because golf is fickle, but it would be a shock.

* Spieth, 28, is back with a scramble game that is unmatched. His last nine starts include a win, two seconds, a third in the Masters, and the former World No. 1 has been especially effective on Friday and Saturday – 16 sub-par scores in 18 chances.

* Rahm, 26, holds down the No. 1 slot in the world rankings and his recent stretch explains why. All he’s done in his last five tournaments is win the U.S. Open, finish third in the Open Championship, eighth in the PGA, seventh in the Scottish Open, and first in the Memorial. Ooops, check that. He was forced to withdraw after 54 holes of the Memorial when he checked in positive for COVID, but having built a six-stroke lead, we don’t have to withdraw it as evidence that the Spaniard is on top of his game.

* Oosthuizen, at 38, easily the oldest player to be sitting top 10 in the current FEC standings. No wins to gloat about, but, oh, the consistency. He is 50-under in his last seven tournaments, a stretch during which he’s finished second three times and third once. It’s not a big leap to see him in contention at any, if not all three of these playoff tournaments, and if that happens, well, sooner or later you figure he’s due for one to fall in the win column.

Of course, as good is the case to make these four names the leading contenders for the FedExCup title, a look at other names gives you reason to pause. Cantlay, English and DeChambeau have each won twice this 2020-21 season. Hideki Matsuyama, 14th in the standings, showed finishing strength at the Masters and has been a playoff loser in his last two starts – for bronze at the Olympics and at the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational.

Then again, Xander Schauffele, who is 13th in the standings, must be riding a wave of confidence after winning Olympic gold, and there is a small parade of young stars – Viktor Hovland, Joquin Niemann, Scott Scheffler, Sunjae Im – who are able to get as hot as a summer day in the desert, so do not count them out.

It is, after all, the FedExCup Playoffs where the cream always rises to the top. Just remember, it begins with a lot of cream.

By Jim McCabe

Photo: Courtesy Getty Images