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Despite the complaints, Tour Championship's system once again producing drama

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ATLANTA – PGA Tour players rarely agree on anything, but on this there appears to be a consensus: They don’t love the staggered-start scoring at the Tour Championship.

Over the past few weeks, as the top 30 came into focus, the format has been described by players as “odd” and “strange” and “weird.” Even the defending champion and FedExCup winner Patrick Cantlay – $15 million richer – believes the system is flawed.

“I’m not a fan,” he said.

More important was what he said next, however: “I think there’s got to be a better system, although, frankly, I don’t know what that better system is.”

Among the top players, he isn’t alone in spotting the faults but not the fixes. “I’ve been saying this lately: 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.”

Full-field scores from Tour Championship

No, it’s not a perfect system – at least not as a true playoff – but it’s still working as intended.

The Tour’s task, after all, is twofold: It’s trying to crown a season-long champion while also creating a compelling conclusion. Those two things aren’t easily married, and yet this system – for all of its supposed oddities and weirdness – has come the closest to achieving that objective.

This is Year 4 of the starting-strokes format. Twice already has the top seed gone on to win the grand prize. The only year he didn’t was in 2019, when Rory McIlroy took advantage of a slow-starting Justin Thomas (who shot only 3 under for four rounds) by roaring back from five shots behind and blowing away the field across 72 holes. It’s hard to argue he was undeserving of that season-long title: McIlroy became a three-time winner that season, including The Players Championship, and was later voted Player of the Year.

In 2020, Dustin Johnson, in the midst of an all-time heater, opened up a five-shot lead through 54 holes and cruised to a comfortable victory that was befitting of his dominant run.

Last year, it was a two-man race between the hottest player (Cantlay) and the star who, statistically, performed the best throughout the season (Jon Rahm). The finish was tense, with Cantlay edging Rahm by one after summoning a clutch approach shot into the closing par 5.

Rahm received world-ranking credit for tying for the lowest 72-hole total but not the $15 million bonus that came along with winning; he walked away with “only” $5 million. It’s little wonder he’s still smarting a year later, recently calling the system “absolutely ridiculous.” Just as important, though, was his follow-up: “I think it’s good for what we have right now, because I don’t know what the solution is. No matter what, you have to accept it, that that’s what it is.”

The action at East Lake might not always be dramatic, but too much volatility at the end creates the potential for flukiness. Too many points and permutations cause confusion. The list of boldfaced winners in this era (McIlroy, Johnson, Cantlay) suggests that the format is properly identifying top players who had strong seasons and then were deservingly rewarded at the end.

And that’ll be the case again Sunday at the Tour Championship, no matter if it’s Scottie Scheffler or Xander Schauffele or any of the other hard-charging challengers who hoists the trophy on the 18th green.

Highlights: Tour Championship, Round 3

Highlights: Tour Championship, Round 3

Scheffler earned a Tour-best four titles this season and, until the playoff opener, had been atop the points standings for months. He was the leading points-getter in the regular season by more than an eye-popping 1,200 points – or the equivalent of two major victories. 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 go out next week.

But a FedExCup crown would fit nicely atop Schauffele’s dome, too. A two-time winner this season – and against above-average fields at the Travelers and Scottish Open – he’s been in full flight all summer. Over the past three months, according to Data Golf, Schauffele is third in true strokes gained, and no one in the past five years has come remotely close to matching 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 just kind of jockeying for position.”

When Scheffler sprinted to a seven-shot lead midway through the second round, there was a collective groan on-site. All of a sudden, it seemed, the grand finale was a snoozer – all of the drama had been snuffed out.

“This is what I was afraid of – that you’re going to have someone run away with it, and what are the TV numbers going to be?” Billy Horschel said midway through the second round. “Obviously fans will come out, but the energy is not going to be there. No one is going to watch if a guy has an eight-shot lead. Do I really want to watch that?”

Homa, however, took a different angle: “I actually think Scottie is making this look ridiculously easy. It could get boring, but it might have been boring regardless because Scottie is pretty good.”

Scheffler's lead down to one as Rd. 3 suspended

Scottie Scheffler's lead is down to a single shot as he'll have to play 24 holes Sunday to capture the Tour Championship.

Of course, the tenor of this tournament changed dramatically in the final 45 minutes Friday. Needing a charge, Schauffele ensured some weekend intrigue by playing his last three holes in 4 under par, including a sensational shot to 5 feet on the 18th hole that cut his halfway deficit to two shots.

During a weather-delayed third round, Scheffler and Schauffele failed to separate from each other or the rest of the pack. Once looking like 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 shots of the lead.

For the fourth year in a row, the Tour has achieved its desired mission: The best player in golf this year is clinging to the lead, with a host of worthy challengers chasing him on a championship test.

Not bad for a supposedly imperfect system.