It was about this time one year ago, at the final event of the FedExCup Playoffs, when Justin Thomas first grabbed the headlines.
At 10-under par before striking his first shot at the TOUR Championship, Thomas’ unusual position atop the leaderboard prior to play beginning was the definitive storyline when the PGA TOUR arrived at East Lake Golf Club.
Thomas, by virtue of his win the week before at the BMW Championship, carried a two-shot lead into the season-ending tournament. Those behind him would soon start the event at 9-under, 8-under, 7-under and so on.
Remember that? When staggered strokes were the biggest narrative surrounding the FedExCup? How things sure have changed only 12 months later.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made certain that this year’s FedExCup Playoffs will look wildly different from the start, except of course for those notorious staggered strokes, which are back once again. (Not that it seemed to matter in 2019, of course.
Rory McIlroy, who began the tournament in fifth place at 5-under par, eventually won by four strokes to claim a cool US$15 million in prize money. Justin Thomas finished tied for third.)
Any comparison to past events likely ends there. Don’t both looking for another picture-perfect moment of Tiger Woods walking the 18th fairway with thousands of fans flanked behind him, cheering him on to another record-breaking victory. Not this time.
The TOUR will continue playing without fans in attendance for the remainder of this season through the Playoffs in an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus.
But fan-less sporting events have become the norm worldwide over the past few months. Imagine, instead, a postseason where your favorite player potentially joins the fans watching on TV from home. That’s the unusual reality facing several Tour stars who are currently on the outside of the top 125 in the standings, in large part a credit to the loss of 13 events that awarded FedExCup points during those initial months of the coronavirus outbreak.
Korea’s Sungjae Im isn’t among those feeling any dread. With six top-10 finishes and a win at The Honda Classic this year, the 22-year-old is safely inside the top-30 TOUR Championship field at No. 3 in the standings. A shot at the Wyndham Rewards US$1 million bonus is within Im’s sight.
Byeong Hun An (No. 33), Sung Kang (50) and K.H. Lee (94) are also safely within the top 125 to date which is the cut-off for players to qualify for THE NORTHERN TRUST, the first of three Playoffs events.
But few others share in Im’s comfort. And perhaps no player’s ominous standing has been discussed at length quite like that of Brooks Koepka, who exited the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide at No. 154 in the FedExCup.
The four-time major winner was a late commitment to the Jack Nicklaus-hosted event in an effort to boost his standing, as the TOUR’s Player of the Year in 2018 and 2019 has made just nine starts this season with only one top-25 finish.
“I’m pretty far down in the FedExCup and need to make a run,” he said flatly. “I think it’s pretty simple. I didn’t plan on playing, but things change, and I’d like to be in Atlanta. That’s what you’ve got to do; I’m going to basically run the table.”
Koepka is hardly alone as a major winner on the outside looking in at the limited-field playoffs. Last year’s Champion Golfer of the Year, Shane Lowry, sits at No. 147 in the standings and is likewise trying to make one last push into The Northern Trust field.
The week he was supposed to be announced on the tee at Royal St George’s as the defending Open Championship winner, he instead found himself in a Memorial Tournament press conference explaining away what an unusual season this one has been.
“I felt at the (beginning of the hiatus) that I was starting to play well. I felt good about the way things were, and then obviously this happened, and we were in lockdown for a number of weeks,” Lowry recalled. “I worked very hard in my time off, probably as hard as I’ve ever worked in my life on the range and in the gym and came back out hoping to get off to a great start, and I didn’t really do what I would have liked.”
There’s plenty of fellow players who fall into similar categories. Neither 2017 Players Champion Si Woo Kim (No. 132) or 2019 Presidents Cup member C.T. Pan (No. 174) would qualify today. Francesco Molinari, who has wins in the previous two seasons at The Quicken Loans National, Open Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational, went ahead and called off the rest of this season in July as he moves his family to California from London.
Even 10-time PGA Tour winner Justin Rose (No. 121), who won the FedExCup in 2018, and 2017 Masters Champion Sergio Garcia (No. 123) are teetering on the edge of qualification. And for those already wondering, like Im, Woods is comfortably inside the first two playoff events, though his current position of 42nd would currently have him out of the Tour Championship.
To be clear, the circumstances surrounding this bizarre season mean that there is no risk to a player who fails to qualify for the 125-man field at The Northern Trust, a punishment that before this year would have cost players Tour status. Consider the 2019-20 season as a bridge year of sorts when it comes to qualification.
These PGA Tour stars would much rather the discussion instead be about their position at the Tour Championship and how many strokes under par they are.
Ultimately it will be those precious few events remaining in this regular season that determine the fate of Im, Woods, Koepka, Lowry and the rest of their peers. The Tour is set to play the 3M Open, World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational (where Koepka is defending champion), the PGA Championship and finally the Wyndham Championship before the playoffs begin.
There remains ample time for to reverse fortunes. Look no further than Dustin Johnson, who was outside the top 100 in mid-June before a win at the Travelers Championship vaulted him inside the top 30.
The blitz to the finish and the start of the FedExCup Playoffs are here. The fascinating storylines await. Including, yes, those staggered strokes.