Can *anyone* really win the FedEx Cup?

For the five players who start 10 strokes back of Justin Thomas before a shot is hit at East Lake, playing catch-up will be tricky but not impossible (theoretically)
August 21, 2019

As you’ve likely heard by now, the PGA Tour has instituted for the first time a true winner-take-all finale, in the sense that whoever wins the Tour Championship in Atlanta this weekend also will win the season-long FedEx Cup. To account for player performances to date, they’ve developed a system in which players will start with different opening scores based on their current standings.

Justin Thomas, who holds down the top spot on the FedEx Cup points list after his victory at the BMW Championship, will start at 10 under, while the remaining 29 players will be placed below him in increments, all the way down to the bottom five who will begin at even par, 10 shots off the lead. The advantage here is that it requires no math to determine the FedEx Cup champion—last year, we saw Justin Rose win that prize while Tiger Woods won the final tournament, leading to a Sunday telecast full of hypotheticals and shifting calculations. This cuts that out—the winner is the winner is the winner is the winner.

But does it really open the top prize up to all 30 players? First, let’s take a quick look at the old system. Last year, heading into East Lake, here’s what had to happen for 30th-ranked Patton Kizzire to win the FedEx Cup:

Wins the Tour Championship AND:
Bryson DeChambeau (#1) finishes 2-way T-29 or worse.
Justin Rose (#2) finishes T-9 or worse.
Tony Finau (#3) in a 3-way tie for 3rd or worse.
Dustin Johnson (#4) finishes 3rd or worse.
Justin Thomas (#5) finishes in a 3-way tie for 2nd or worse.
Keegan Bradley (#6) finishes T-2 or worse.
Brooks Koepka (#7) finishes T-2 or worse.

Not only was this more complicated, but fundamentally it felt impossible because it depended on more than just Kizzire’s performance—the best player had to finish second-to-last, and so on and so forth. This year, 30th-ranked Bryson DeChambeau simply needs to overcome a 10-shot deficit.

Sounds easier. But is it?

Lucky for me, Ryan Herrington has done the difficult, brilliant work of compiling “theoretical” FedEx Cup winners from the last decade. In plain English, that means he’s taken the results at East Lake since 2007 and applied the new 2019 rules to see who would have won. There are a few interesting differences—in 2008, Camilo Villegas would have prevailed instead of Vijay Singh, 2010’s champion Jim Furyk would have found himself in a $10 million playoff with Luke Donald, and Donald would have wrenched the title away from real-life winner Bill Haas in 2011. But for the last seven years, the champion would have been the exact same, including Rose over Tiger last year.

That’s probably to be expected—the Tour Championship victory was already worth so much that strong performances in that event were likely to vault the winner to the top prize, provided the winner was already near the top of the leader board ... which was almost always the case, since the previous two playoff events are also worth a disproportionate amount … which guarantees that the hottest players won’t often be lingering below the top 15.

Among potential alternate winners, Luke Donald in 2010 (when he would have faced a playoff with Furyk) would have started the weekend with the lowest starting score, at four under. Among players who would have started at even par (the lowest possible score, reserved for those ranked from 26th through 30th), the best finish belongs to Xander Schauffele, whose 12-under tournament-winning performance in 2017 would have vaulted him to T-4 in the FedEx Cup race. Justin Rose (2014), Ryan Moore (2012) and Nick Watney (2010) all went from the bottom to a theoretical T-7 finish, and Tiger Woods may have made the greatest overall leap last year, going from what would have been a two-under start to a T-2 finish. (However, Tiger also finished second in the FedEx Cup under the old forma, raising the question about whether anything has really changed.)


Keyur Khamar/PGA Tour

In short, the “worst-to-first” finish hasn’t happened, by the numbers, since the FedEx Cup was first awarded in 2007. But that’s only a span of 12 seasons, which is a relatively small sample size, so we have to ask a harder question—could it happen?

A player starting at even par has to overcome a 10-shot deficit against the top player, but he also has to overcome a variety of smaller deficits against 25 other players. That compounds the problem, but one way we can try to answer the question is by examining other big comebacks in PGA Tour history. A look at final-round comebacks shows us that one player, Paul Lawrie, managed to take back 10 strokes in a single round, though it did require Jean Van de Velde’s infamous collapse at the 1999 Open Championship. But Stewart Cink also roared back from nine shots down, and eight players have managed the feat on Sunday from eight shots back.

In some respects, the task facing the “start-at-even” crew in the Tour Championship this weekend is much easier. First, they have 72 holes, not 18, to overcome a 10-stroke deficit. Second, the competition is 29 players, not the 70-or-so who typically make the cut at a “normal” event. They have a longer time to beat a smaller number of players, and by that reckoning, chipping off 2.5 shots per round seems far from impossible.

But there are difficulties, too. As mentioned above, the players near the top of the rankings are there not just because they’ve played better all season, but because they’ve played better recently. Superior talent over a year, and superior form over the past month, give them an enormous advantage. Also, East Lake doesn’t typically yield enormous margins of victory, aside from Tiger’s absurd 23 under in 2007. Save for that year, the biggest margin was four strokes, accomplished a few times.

And yet, upsets happen, as Schauffele showed by winning the 2017 Tour Championship while being 26th place on the points list to start the week, and Tiger showed a year later by winning from 20th place. They both still came up short of what they’d need to win the FedEx Cup under the new format, but the fact that they were close tells us much about the possibility.

So let’s put our cards on the table: It’s my opinion that if the PGA Tour sticks with the new system, then yes, within about 20 years we’ll see a winner emerge from the even-par starting group.

The last question: Is this markedly different? Again, the answer is yes. The top players would have to hiccup slightly to let a lower player win, but unlike last year, the player ranked first wouldn’t have to finish 29th or worse. A mediocre or even “just good” tournament from the top dog, coupled with a scorcher from someone ranked 26th through 30th, would do the trick. It’s a tall task, but anyone can win the FedEx Cup this weekend, and that hasn’t been true—not really—before now.