Column: More than just $10M at stake in FedEx Cup playoffs
NEW YORK (AP) The FedEx Cup isn’t the only trophy at stake over the next five weeks.
One trophy is known for its $10 million prize, with $9 million in cash. The other is about respect and honor from the other players.
The PGA Tour launched its lucrative FedEx Cup in 2007 with hopes it would give the season some definition and keep golf interesting after the majors are over. Another purpose it occasionally serves is to allow the best players to lobby for the Jack Nicklaus Award as the player of the year.
This campaign is more about results than rhetoric.
Going into the FedEx Cup playoffs that start Thursday with The Northern Trust, it’s a two-man race. That could change.
Justin Thomas is regarded as the front-runner, and the size of his lead depends on the scope of one’s memory. His two-shot victory in the PGA Championship featured a rally that began with a 35-foot birdie putt, a twist of fortune when his ball hung on the edge of the cup for the longest time before dropping and a 7-iron over the water to a peninsula green that will be the signature moment of his young career.
But that doesn’t compare with what happened a month ago.
Jordan Spieth was on the verge of losing another big lead in a major when he had the savvy to ask the most important question of the year: ”Is the driving range out of bounds?”
The answer was no, and Spieth began his rally at the British Open with a blind shot over the dunes, a delicate pitch, a clutch putt and a bogey. What followed was a stretch of golf that even Nicklaus applauded – birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie – for a three-shot victory at Royal Birkdale and the third leg of the career Grand Slam.
The Jack Nicklaus Award is determined by votes from the players, and majors typically go a long way when they submit their choices. Sergio Garcia had one of the most popular victories this year at the Masters, though that remains his only PGA Tour victory. Ditto for U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, even though his name was never too far from the top of the leaderboard at all four majors.
Over the last decade, Nicklaus Award winners who didn’t win a major did something exceptional that year.
Adam Scott won the Masters and a FedEx Cup playoff event in 2013, but even he didn’t think that could stack up to Tiger Woods winning five times. Luke Donald in 2011 became the first player to win the money title on both sides of the Atlantic, along with having the lowest scoring average on tour. And in 2010, another year in which no one stood out in the majors, Jim Furyk won the Tour Championship for his third victory and captured the FedEx Cup.
Players won’t lack for good choices this year.
Odds are, how the candidates perform in the playoffs will decide who gets the Nicklaus bronze.
What sets apart the 24-year-old Thomas going into the PGA Tour’s version of a postseason are three scores and four trophies. He has one more PGA Tour title than Spieth this year. Spieth would regain the edge if he were to add a fourth victory based on the quality of his wins.
As for those scores?
Thomas shot a 59 at the Sony Open – with Spieth in his group, no less – and while it no longer is a record score, it’s still a magic number. More relevant than his 59, however, was that Thomas capped off that week at Waialae with rounds of 64-65-65 to set the tour’s 72-hole scoring record at 253. He also became only the fourth player to shoot 63 in a U.S. Open, and this one got even more attention because he was the first player to do it on a par 72.
That’s why Spieth would need another victory to take over the role as the betting favorite.
What he has in place of a record score is that winning moment from the Travelers Championship when he holed a bunker shot to win a playoff, and brought a new form of celebration – the body bump with his caddie – onto the PGA Tour. He also has been more consistent. Thomas has missed six cuts this year, including a major, and he never contended unless he was winning. Spieth was runner-up at Colonial by one shot.
Not to be overlooked are the top two players in the world ranking, Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama.
Johnson was the most dominant player in golf with three straight victories – at the time, they were against the three strongest fields of the year – until he decided to rent a two-story house at the Masters. A spill down the stairs that caused him to wrench his back cost him practice time and momentum. If he were to win two playoff events and the FedEx Cup, the question becomes whether two World Golf Championships, two playoff events and a FedEx Cup title would trump a major.
The same logic might apply to Matsuyama, who has earned more world ranking points from PGA Tour event than anyone else this season. He has three victories (two World Golf Championships), but he went four months without a top 10.
Four tournaments could go a long way in making this is a logical choice.