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PGA Tour's finale at East Lake is starting to produce that playoff feel

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ATLANTA – Even the guy who had the most to gain during last year’s transition to a strokes-based scoring system at the PGA Tour’s finale conceded the new system was awkward.

“It was tough. It was different,” said Justin Thomas, who began the week at the 2019 Tour Championship at 10 under and at least a stroke clear of the field. “That's the best way to describe it is there's nothing that we could simulate or that we've done that when you put your tee in the ground on the first round, you start at 10 under and everyone is behind you.”

If you follow the Tour’s logic, the move to strokes-based scoring makes sense. It just takes some time to arrive at that convoluted crossroads.

It was, ironically enough, Thomas’ runner-up showing at the 2017 Tour Championship that – at least in part – prompted the Tour’s scoring makeover. He’d just finished a stroke behind Xander Schauffele at East Lake, but had secured the FedExCup crown and the $10 million bonus. Instead of celebrating his newfound riches and his season-long accomplishment, Thomas bristled at not having won the tournament.

The disconnect was jarring and led to the new model, which gives players a stroke total based on their position on the playoff points list following the BMW Championship. Points leader Dustin Johnson will begin this week at 10 under, followed by Jon Rahm (8 under), Thomas (7 under), Webb Simpson (6 under) and Collin Morikawa (5 under), all the way down to Nos. 26-30 at even par.


Who has the mental advantage this week: DJ or Rahm?

Who has the mental advantage this week: DJ or Rahm?


What makes this year’s edition different from the 2019 inaugural offering is equal parts perspective and performance.

The top three players on the points list are also the top three in the world rankings, and when the conversation turns to who might land the vote for the Tour’s Player of the Year Award, the list begins and ends with the top five on the points list.

Johnson won the playoff opener at TPC Boston in a rout and Rahm captured a dramatic playoff over Johnson last week. Thomas is the only player on Tour with at least three victories this season, Simpson has been stellar since the post-quarantine restart in June and Morikawa won the season’s only major championship last month.

“It's that time of year where you need to play well. They're big events, and I think that's when the best guys come out and show their stuff,” Johnson said. “It's kind of how it happens in all sports; during the playoffs is when you're supposed to step up and play well, so that's what I try to do.”

The “playoff” concept has never been a comfortable fit for golf’s contrived postseason, and last year’s move to what is essentially a handicapped event only made for more handwringing. But this year’s slate comes with a degree of clarity that has been missing from previous editions.

“I think it's going to be quite a bit different than last year,” Thomas said Thursday at East Lake. “It'll feel a lot different when I'm out there. I think it's going to feel more normal. I'm going to be able to go about my normal game a little bit better. I just need to not get as wrapped up in everyone's scores as opposed to just me playing golf.”


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Current FedExCup points standings


The recent play of the game’s top players suggests that this championship will favor chalk and deliver a title bout befitting of a $15 million payout, but that’s not to say someone from the pack couldn’t add a degree of confusion to the mix. Bill Haas began the 2011 Tour Championship sitting 25th on the points list before winning the tournament and the season-long race. Although that was a much different format, Tour officials claim the odds are comparable.

“It's doable. It's not very doable, but it is,” Thomas said when asked if a player who starts the week at even par could climb out of a 10-shot hole against the game’s top-ranked player.

In fact, some see the ultimate come-from-behind scenario as more likely than a runaway champion given the current structure.

“There's just too many good players in that 6 to 8 [under] range, and that shot deficit is too easy to make up,” Kevin Kisner said. “[Johnson] could shoot 9 under tomorrow and run away and it would be a total snoozer, but there's too many good players near the top that are not far enough away to run away, but 10 shots is surmountable over four days if somebody gets really hot.”

In many ways, avoiding that kind of forgone conclusion is exactly what the Tour hoped to accomplish with the move to the new format. While it might have taken time and some over-explaining, the result is as close to a “playoff” as golf has ever been.