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And just like that, the PGA Tour season is about to end.
Never mind the whys and wherefores of compacting four majors into a three-month period, the end of the British Summer sees the always-confusing Tour Championship and the fight for the supposed best player on the tour.
Just 30-players vie for the FedEx Cup title, and the staggered start offers only those with strong recent form the chance to win the big bucks, with world number one, Scottie Scheffler, seeing his two wins enough to lead the rankings.
Despite his haul being half of his 2022 jamboree, his consistency throughout the year means he heads the table and arrives in Georgia with a starting handicap of -10. From there, the remaining 29 are asked to give varying amounts of shots, trailing back to Sam Burns, Emiliano Grillo, Tyrrell Hatton, Jordan Spieth and Sepp Straka, all of whom start at level par and face an impossible task to overcome not only Scheffler, but last weeks’ BMW champion Viktor Hovland, and Tour Championship stalwart Rory McIlroy, to whom they give eight shots and seven respectively. The full list is here,
The event sees two possible markets – with and without starting strokes and, for now, I’ll be along with the handicap as it more-or-less takes out everyone from lower than 4-under. Given it’s very difficult to see Lucas Glover being so much better than those above him in the stagger, this is a nine-player field.
Rory McIlroy to win the Tour Championship (10/3)
Last season, Rory McIlroy was a confident selection to overcome a six stroke deficit to the flying Scheffler, and whilst quotes of 11-1 are now behind cobwebs, I can see no reason why he won’t get the better of the same player, needing to overcome only half that number.
A victory at the season-opener in Dubai, an event he was entitled to win as 10/3 favourite, looked to have set the Irishman up for a great season but, following a second-place finish at Bay Hill, his game went completely awry. Perhaps a consequence of the intense pressure of being the main PGA Tour spokesman throughout the LIV controversy.
Having missed the RBC Heritage, in turn suffering a fine from the PGA Tour, he explained his absence by summing up the previous month.
“It sucked. It sucked,” McIlroy said on the eve of the Wells Fargo Championship. “It’s not the performance I obviously thought I was going to put up [at the Masters]. Nor was it the performance I wanted. Just incredibly disappointing. But I needed some time to regroup. And focus on what’s ahead.”
He’s done that, playing nine events since, finishing seventh at the US Open, runner-up at the PGA Championship and sixth at The Open. All top finishes but at least a couple that could have been better.
In between, McIlroy led at the Memorial before a last round collapse, let another chance go when going for a three-peat in Canada and just failed to get it done at both the first two play-off events.
The latter fact is no bad thing, having not won the final event after winning events ‘two’ and ‘three in the days of a four-tournament play-off. He’s also never won either St. Jude or the BMW when twice victorious at East Lake during the ‘modern’ period. The feeling, in this camp at least, is this is THE one for McIlroy.
Much is expected of these elite players, so much so that even his finish at Hoylake proved disappointing for most.
McIlroy was quick to say he would be over it, looking forward to the near future.
“I can’t sit here and be too frustrated. You think about my performances in the majors between, like, 2016 and 2019, it’s a lot better than that. I’m optimistic about the future and just got to keep plugging away.
“I think about trying to go and win a fourth FedExCup here in a couple weeks’ time, go try and win a fifth Race to Dubai, go and win a fifth Ryder Cup. I just keep looking forward.”
Whilst we rightly admire Scheffler’s often extraordinary stats from tee-to-green, there is little denial that he is struggling badly on the greens, and gave away the lead again last Sunday night.
He’ll do well to turn that around in just seven days, and hasn’t that much in hand of McIlroy, if anything at all.
Currently ranked in second place for strokes gained off-the-tee, McIlroy has been outside the top-10 for tee-to-green just once in nine starts, leading the way at Los Angeles CC and at the Renaissance Club before averaging around plus-9 strokes for his last three events. With such a game, averaging around 25th for putting since the PGA will always see a challenge and it does seem that one small adjustment will see him back at the top of the world.
With McIlroy, the main issue seems to be his slight over-drawing of his irons, leaving him just too many mid-range putts where others have short ones. But he is landing flag-high, and this is East Lake, home of three Tour Championship titles and a course that rewards a top-quality tee game before anything else.
Winner in fast conditions (2019) and when the rain has fallen, McIlroy comes here with 12-week stats that rank him 1st for driving distance, 12th for greens-in-regulation, 2nd for par-4s and top-10 for putting.
In a four-year sample, Patrick Cantlay stands alone as a player that won the BMW and Tour Championship in the same year, and after last week’s brilliant final round, Viktor Hovland must have a great chance to cap off another progressive season.
It looks as if the Norwegian may be over the short game woes that looked terribly painful at times over the past 24 months, especially if last week’s victory sees him kick-on from finding over six shots with the flat stick. However, in three outings at East Lake, Hovland has finished 29th, 25th and 15th for putting off an equally unimpressive tee game.
Given many of the more fancied names have too much to do off their mark, Rahm looking average over the first two play-off events and the likes of Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele needing to find at least six strokes to beat all those in front of them, this looks a three-man heat. Hovland will like his position just two off the lead, but that is just one ahead of McIlroy and, here, this week, at this Championship, I much prefer the Irishman to prove his master.