ATLANTA — Easier to follow, but not the best. That’s the verdict on the Tour Championship’s staggered start five years into the current version.
In 2019, the PGA Tour introduced a handicapping system to structure the leaderboard for the 30 players who qualified for the FedEx Cup finale at East Lake. A quick reminder, FedEx Cup leader Scottie Scheffler will start Thursday’s first round at 10 under par, with Viktor Hovland at eight under and Rory McIlroy at seven under. The scores then regress down to where the final five in the standings start at even par.
“I don’t think it’s the best, but it is the easiest to understand,” said Jon Rahm, who’ll start at six under par.
There’s one problem with the format though—the Official World Golf Ranking don’t recognize the Tour Championship winner if he doesn’t shoot the lowest 72-hole score.
“It’s a little odd you get awarded world rankings points for a tournament you may not win or you may not celebrate at the end,” Rahm said.
Rahm is one of three players who shot the lowest 72-hole score at par-70 East Lake and claimed the most world ranking points without winning the Tour Championship. In 2020, Xander Schauffele posted the lowest score (265) but Dustin Johnson won everything. In 2021, Cantlay swept the tournament and FedEx Cup, but he won just 15.8 OWGR points while Rahm and Kevin Na (266) each took home 51 points. Last year, Rory McIlroy righted the ship, shooting 263 to take everything, including 38.8 world ranking points.
“It’s a bit of a strange format,” Scheffler said. The reigning Players champion has often joked that the World No. 1 ranking means little to him because the title doesn’t come with a headstart on tournament leaderboards, except at East Lake. “You show up this week and I do get some extra strokes. But it should be a fun week,” he said.
McIlroy, a record three-time winner of the FedEx Cup (2016, ’19 and ’22), defended the format for rewarding the most consistent player each season.
“If anything, like, Scottie this year, he probably should have more of an advantage than a two-shot lead,” McIlroy said of Scheffler, who has finished in the top 10 in 16 of 22 events he’s played this season, including two wins.
Five years in, the riddle the Tour Championship faces is whether it wants to be fair, entertaining, or both.
“It needs to be both,” McIlroy said. “The players have to feel it’s fair, but if I’m thinking big picture, I would say entertainment has to be a big part of it.”
Scheffler is a generational ball-striker. The 2022 Masters champ could become the first person in the 20 years of ShotLink records to lead the tour in both strokes gained/off-the-tee and approach-the-green. But he is a stoic player, and the Texan running away with the Tour Championship after the second or third rounds would not exactly be box-office viewing.
Match play has long been suggested as a format that could manufacture drama at East Lake. Watching the final two golfers battling for the $18 million FedEx Cup winner’s prize would be exciting television. In fact, U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick went as far as suggesting the three-event playoff series should all be match-play events to bring it in line with more aggressive knockout format in other U.S. sports. But how would Tour Championship match play work? Would the entire tournament be match play, or would the tour need to style it like the U.S. Amateur with a stroke play and match play component?
“That would be a great, but I just don’t think the tour would want that just because [golf] is not like tennis, where the top seeds always pretty much get to the Round of 16, the quarters, the semis and the finals,” said Jason Day, a two-time winner of the WGC-Match Play. “A guy could lead the FedEx Cup the whole year and get knocked out the first round [if it were all match play]. But it’d be interesting.”
For now, the staggered start is the strongest format that players, and the tour, can come up with.
“Of all the iterations … I think this is the best one yet,” McIlroy said. “I can’t sit here and say I’ve thought of something better. I’m sure if it needs to be addressed in the future, it will.”