This new Tour Championship wasn't perfect, but it worked
ATLANTA — There is no cure for a hangover.
Take your pick: Home remedies, herbal supplements, shamanism. All promise relief, many a wounded spirit swear by them, but none quite deliver. There is one, and only one, abatement for the morning after.
And that is time.
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Unequivocally, the latest iteration of the FedEx Cup, with its new-fangled, stroke-adjusted start, was no lemon. The two best players in golf—Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy—were in the final pairing at the Tour Championship, with Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas keeping things honest. The fusion of performance and popularity was a dream scenario for any Sunday, let alone the PGA Tour's season finale.
Just as important, players ranked 10th to 20th heading into Thursday at East Lake, often left as spectators in previous FedEx Cup formats, were given a viable chance to compete under the new system.
“There's no insurance policy this week for anybody. The guys at the top, even guys middle of the pack, you'd have an insurance policy [before]. If you didn't play well, it kind of didn't matter [you still finished high in the final points standings],” said Paul Casey, one of those middle-of-the-pack guys who finished fifth. “[Now], the guys in the middle, guys down at the bottom have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Added Rickie Fowler, who began the week 19th off the FedEx Cup points list: “It's a lot more straightforward. It's right there in front of you. You can see what's going on, what you need to do. So I think for the first year, success."
Staying on the topic of blends, the pre-tournament leader board, and the field itself, served both its regular season and playoff masters. How much that scale should tip to each side remains a debate. After all, the work of 43 weeks should outweigh two, no? Although, if it is a postseason, postseason play needs to be rewarded. That year-round warriors like Koepka, McIlroy and Schauffele jostled with playoff winners in Thomas and Patrick Reed warrants praise.
Helping matters was McIlroy, not just winning the tournament as it now stands, but also the more traditional version without a staggered start.
"My goal was to just shoot the lowest score of the week," McIlroy said, holding the trophy. "That's why I was still concentrating on it."
Yet was this success a byproduct of the system, or serendipity?
Noted ad nausea in the East Lake lead-up and repeated this week, the framework of the stroke-adjusted start would have deprived fans of a one of the more indelible moments in golf history last season, the Tour Championship title going to Justin Rose instead of Tiger Woods. All due respect to Rose, that would have been broccoli-on-a-birthday-cake bad.
The threat of runaway winner endures under the new format; the 10-under pre-tournament leader starting 65-65 as No. 2, 3 and 4 falter would produce a snoozer. And as much as cash is supposed to be the storyline, it continues to be a disconnect with fan.
What exists is not perfect. But it is a notion acknowledged by officials and players.
“It's been an evolution since Day 1,” Rose said. “We're trying to figure it out.
Remember, it was the players who signed off on this scoring chassis, and although not universal—count McIlroy as one of its early week detractors—many cited the conversion of points to strokes as a positive.
“As a player and I think even as a fan, the points were hard to figure out,” Matt Kuchar said. “Players certainly had no idea. It was way too much math to do when you're trying to figure out if somebody three groups away—and not even that close to you, but happens to get within a stroke and points vary—nobody could do the math. … I wouldn't be surprised if it gets tweaked a bit here or there, but I think the general concept is really good.”
“I think that the simplicity of it is what I like about it, and obviously, hopefully, that's what you guys like about it,” Rose said. “But more importantly the fans at home and what they like about it. They can follow it much easier.”
Nevertheless, a palpable uncertainty cloaked the tournament early in the week.
“It's going to be weird,” Thomas said on Tuesday. “I'm going to need to find a way to think about it because, just to be perfectly honest, no one's ever dealt with it.”
Thomas was talking about the staggered start, in which he was leading before he even hit a shot. But it might have applied another way,
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Last fall, in the gleam of East Lake’s parking lot lights, Fowler turned to a group that included tour players, significant others and friends on Sunday night. “Ain’t no way we’re ever topping that,” Fowler said with an incredulous smile as Tiger claimed his 80th PGA Tour title in ultra dramatic fashion.
Fowler would be initially proven wrong seven months later, when Tiger slipped on the green jacket for the fifth occasion. Yet in the tour’s return to Atlanta, he still had a point.
Only when compared to last year's Tour Championship would you say this year's version lacked buzz. Hell, even the Super Bowl lacked excitement measured against what we saw in those four magical September days. Otherwise, though, it felt consistent with the past.
For those that haven’t been, East Lake—even with the lavish bonuses—often feels less than a normal event, in part perhaps because of the small field. In turn, that disposition is matched by the fans. It is a passionate base in Atlanta, and in spite of the absence of you-know-who, they arrived in numbers this week. But it also seems like you have stumbled into a barbecue, and it just so happens a golf tournament has broken out in the backyard.
Problem is, last year’s images, emotions and experiences were very much alive. When something you have lost returns, you never want to let it go again. Woods was not in Georgia this weekend, but with the unending television tributes and website pieces (including this publication) and promotional advertising pushed throughout the city and course, it sure felt like he was.
Paired with the new curious format, the environment was noticeably muted Tuesday through Thursday at East Lake.
Then Friday arrived, and the players and crowds settled in. The format, the one critics screamed would be a sideshow, wasn't.
“Today felt normal,” Thomas said after the second round. “Yesterday was weird. I told my dad that. It's just so odd, looking over and seeing 10 under. I mean, I don't care who you are, I have a hard time believing that anybody is going to play different.”
“It's not a big deal,” added Koepka Friday night. “You just go out there and try to close that gap.”
Saturday brought much of the same, and while nowhere near last year’s circus, there was a tailgate vibe at East Lake early in the third round. That Koepka, McIlroy and Thomas shared the billing on what was a picturesque day early didn’t hurt. No one can replace Woods, this we know. But this was the best home remedy the tour has for a Tiger-less event.
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Sunday morning’s restart was more understated, Saturday’s storms and the injuries very much at the forefront of everyone’s collective mind. When word spread that all the victims had been released from the hospital, sighs went out and shoulders eased.
The heavyweight bout wasn’t much of a fight. Schauffele was undone by three bogeys, and Koepka was simply off as Rory gathered momentum. Back-to-back bogeys at the 14th and 15th briefly put the issue in doubt, but a par save from seven feet on the 16th slammed the door.
As Rory walked down the 18th hole, the fans, somewhat prodded by the marshals, circled the green, trying to recreate the panorama of a year ago. Over at the adjacent 10th, volunteers and TV personnel were lining up golf carts in the fairway. Noting the crowd, a volunteer in a cattle hat seemed melancholy. “Last year was special, wasn’t it?”
It was. But this Tour Championship, and the ones that follow, can be, too. They just need time.