Tour ChampionshipAugust 20, 2019

The Tour Championship, its evolution and why Justin Thomas leads by two before a shot is struck

TOUR Championship - Preview Day 2
Sam Greenwood Justin Thomas, here working with his father Mike Thomas during a practice round, takes a two-stroke lead into the first round of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

ATLANTA — A few numbers to consider heading into this year’s reconfigured Tour Championship at East Lake:

• There are 11 players who didn’t win a tournament this season who are in the field. By contrast, 22 players who did win, including Masters champion Tiger Woods and Open Championship winner Shane Lowry, aren’t.

• Rory McIlroy, by any measure the most consistent golfer of 2018-'19, has two wins and 13 top-10 finishes but will start the Tour Championship just one stroke ahead of Abraham Ancer and Webb Simpson, who have a combined zero wins and 10 top-10s between them.

• Justin Thomas, who recorded his first victory of the season at last week’s BMW Championship, will open the Tour Championship with a three-shot lead over Brooks Koepka, who in 19 starts this season has two wins (including a major), finished second, second and fourth in the other three majors and will easily be named Player of the Year again.

Then there’s this fact: The player who shoots the lowest gross score over four days at the season finale might not win the FedEx Cup.

“I think what it says is that, one, it's really hard to get to Atlanta and the Tour Championship,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said. “You've got to play exceedingly well over the course of an entire season, and with volatility, there's risk. And if you don't play well over the course of the season or you don't get off to the start that you envision at the start of playoffs, you take the risk that you're not going to be here.”

Changes to the format aren’t without reason, though. The possibility of having two winners, as the tour did last year and on three other occasions—also confusing— and some players (and fans) not knowing what they need to do in order to win the season-long prize and the now $15 million prize no longer exists.

“I think that fans know this is a season‑long competition,” Monahan continued. “The FedEx Cup is not a tournament. The Tour Championship is now for the FedEx Cup. So when you make that transition, you have to recognize that there are 45 weeks and 45 tournaments that precede it.

“But I'm open to that, like that's OK. That's why we've done what we're doing.”

This is year 13 of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and if it feels like there have been that many changes to the format of the tour’s postseason, that would be incorrect. But there have been several.

In each of the first two years after its introduction, the tour tightened the points structure to keep players from skipped a playoff event. In 2007, Tiger Woods did just that, passing on the first leg of the playoffs, and went on to win anyway; and in 2008 Vijay Singh had accumulated so many points he couldn’t be caught at the Tour Championship.

In 2013 came another change with points—rather than the money list—determining who retained a card for the following season.

And in 2015, points reset at the Tour Championship, ensuring that every player teeing it up had a mathematical chance to win the FedEx Cup.

Then there’s this year.

Thomas will start the week at 10 under. Patrick Cantlay, who finished second at last week’s BMW Championship, will start at eight under. Koepka at seven under. Patrick Reed at six under. McIlroy at five under and so on, down to Bryson DeChambeau, Louis Oozthuizen, Charles Howell III, Lucas Glover and Jason Kokrak at even.

So exists the possibility of, say, Koepka, shooting a lower total score than Thomas but the latter walking away with the one trophy and $15 million that will be handed out on Sunday.

RELATED: Justin Thomas wins the BMW Championship by three and, yes, leads the Tour Championship by two

No system is perfect, but the tour seems to be saying this one is worth a shot.

“The format that we had in the past, it worked and served the FedEx Cup really well,” Monahan said. “But the fact of the matter is that unless you were in the top five, you didn't know what you needed to do, and we had some situations where guys made a run here in Atlanta and were in a position to get into the No. 1 position in the FedEx Cup, and they didn't know that while they were playing. Or you had guys that were in the middle of the pack at the start of the week that didn't really know what they needed to do to get into the number one position or a top 10 position.

“We're not sitting here on Tuesday of the Tour Championship saying everything's perfect, but we think this is the right format to transition into, the right scoring format to transition to as you move out of the old one. I think it's been really exciting to see it unfold.”

And based on history, not the last change likely to unfold, either.