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Walk-off eagle watch? The numbers on East Lake's par-5s suggest it

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ATLANTA – It’s been six years since the front and back nines were reversed at East Lake to engineer a more volatile finishing stretch for the Tour Championship.

This year, more than ever, it might do just that.

A par-70 course, the site of the FedExCup finale only has two par-5s, the sixth and 18th. They’ve played as the easiest holes on the course at every edition of the championship since 2016. But soft conditions during a humid and rainy week in Atlanta have made their weaknesses even more pronounced this time around.

Through end of play on Saturday, there have been 16 eagles and 96 total birdies carded. The previous six years, the holes had averaged six eagles and 126 birdies for 72 holes.

Full-field scores from Tour Championship

That’s 10 more eagles than typical, and Round 3 hasn’t even concluded yet.

Max Homa earned one of those eagles on the 18th to end his second round. When asked if he plays the par-5s like par-4s, he said, “Never play it like a par-4. It's just because it's soft, but it also makes it long.”

“When it's soft, it just makes it a little more defenseless, but at the same time, they're probably the only two holes that you feel real comfy on because now some of the holes (caddie) Joe was telling me they would hit wedge into. We’ve hit 7- and 8-iron,” Homa concluded.

The 30-year-old California native is making his first appearance at the Tour Championship, so he rightfully deferred an emphatic declaration on the holes. But you don’t have to dig far back into the history books to realize the 2016 change has become a deciding factor in this tournament.

Reigning champion Patrick Cantlay went 8-for-8 in birdies on the holes en route to his win in 2021, birdieing the 18th to avoid a playoff with Jon Rahm. Dustin Johnson birdied 6-of-8 the previous year. Rory McIlroy, the 2016 and 2019 winner, has birdied 12 of 17 possible times, including a playoff hole. Current solo second Xander Schauffele was 6-of-8, including an eagle, when he delivered a clutch putt on the 18th to top Justin Thomas. 

The only winner that seemed hot and cold in the face of opportunity was Tiger Woods back in 2018, when he only played the holes under par in half of his eight attempts. He is also the last winner to have eagled one of the holes and gone on to hoist the FedExCup trophy.

The same can’t be said for the Sunday contenders in 2022.

Highlights: Tour Championship, Round 3

Highlights: Tour Championship, Round 3

Seven of the top 10 have carded at least one eagle on the par-5s, with solo-third Sungjae Im, solo-fourth Rory McIlroy, and T-10 Joaquin Niemann having all shown repeated mastery of the holes with two apiece. Leader Scottie Scheffler (19 under) and Xander Schauffele, one back, have also taken advantage.

Im and McIlroy, in particular, are within three and four strokes of the lead, respectively. Both have eagled No. 6 twice this week and could make significant moves with three more opportunities each when play resumes at 9:45 a.m. ET on Sunday.

While the chance of rain is low, the weather has already done its work on the course. It will still be soft, and those holes will be highlighted as key birdie or better opportunities for the field as we march toward what should be an exciting finish to the 2021-22 season.

And with that, we are officially on walk-off eagle watch.