The uphill climb: starting a golf tournament 10 shots back

August 21, 2019
Justin Ray

For all who orbit the professional golf solar system, routine is a shared state of being. Of the 45 tournaments held so far this season on the PGA Tour, 43 have been 72-hole, stroke play tournaments.

So at minimum, this week in Atlanta will be one of the most interesting setups in years. With a 2-shot lead on the first tee, does Justin Thomas take fewer chances? Will players like Marc Leishman and Tommy Fleetwood, already nine shots back, free-wheel it and attack every pin? Will enormous prize differences, like the one between 6th place ($1.9 million) and 9th place ($950K) factor into decision making down the stretch?

In years past, players who entered the Tour Championship outside the top-20 in the FedExCup standings had very little chance of winning the $10 million bonus. For example, Gary Woodland was in 28th place entering East Lake last year. In order to win the FedExCup, he needed the following exhausting scenario to happen:

– Win the Tour Championship

– DeChambeau (1-seed) finish T-26 or worse

– Rose (2-seed) finish T-8 or worse

– Finau (3-seed) finish T-3 or worse

– D. Johnson (4-seed) finish T-3 or worse

– Thomas (5-seed) finish T-2 or worse

– Bradley (6-seed) and Koepka (7-seed) also T-2 or worse

Despite the unconventional beginning to the tournament, the simplified setup will be enormously easier for fans to consume, broadcasters to explain and players to understand. But will it be easier – or more difficult – for the players in the back of the pack to contend?

It admittedly isn’t a perfect comparison – but we took every PGA Tour winner this decade and examined his position after the first round. Of the 432 regular stroke play events since 2010, only two were won by players ten or more shots back after 18 holes – less than 0.5%. Only six winners were nine or more back, while only 15 – less than 3.5% – were eight or more shots back after the first round.

The win percentage by players at a specified 18-hole deficit or further back reads like this:

10 shots – 0.5%

9 shots – 1.4%

8 shots – 3.5%

7 shots – 7.9%

6 shots – 15.3%

5 shots – 25.0%

4 shots – 40.0%

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No player this season has won any PGA Tour event when trailing by nine or more strokes after any round. The largest deficit faced by any winner was eight shots by Matthew Wolff after the second round of the 3M Open.

While winning a golf tournament after you’ve been saddled with an eight or nine-shot deficit isn’t impossible, it is extremely unlikely. But in a season-long event meant to reward a combination of cumulative success and playoff performance, it’s the right approach by the Tour.

GEORGIA JACKPOT

– The winner of the Tour Championship this week will get $15 million. That is more than Greg Norman, former all-time career PGA Tour earnings leader, made in his entire PGA Tour career combined ($14.4M). The PGA Tour didn’t award $15 million in combined purses for an entire season until 1982.

– In 1996, the year Tiger Woods turned professional, the combined total of every PGA Tour purse for the season was $65.9 million. This week, $70 million will be handed out in FedExCup bonus money alone.

– Only two players have ever had a PGA Tour season where their official earnings and FedExCup bonus payout surpassed $20 million – Jordan Spieth in 2015 and Tiger Woods in 2007 and 2009. Eight different players can join them with a win this week at East Lake.

– Thirty-one years ago, Curtis Strange became the first player in PGA Tour history to amass $1 million or more in earnings in a single season. Eighth place in the Tour Championship this week will get you $1.1M – and 112 different players won $1M or more in the ’18-19 PGA Tour season.

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NOTES ON KEY PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

– We have bad news for the other 29 players in the field: Justin Thomas has crushed it at East Lake. Over the last three years, no player had made more birdies + eagles in the Tour Championship than JT, with 52.

Jon Rahm (-4, 6 back) enters the week as arguably the hottest player on Earth. He’s finished 11th or better in each of his last seven worldwide starts, with 70 percent of his rounds in that span being in the 60s. Rahm is making his third start at East Lake, having previously finished T-7 and T-11.

Patrick Cantlay took the lead in the race for the scoring title last week at the BMW Championship – he now leads Rory McIlroy, 69.14 to 69.20. Rory is seeking his third career Vardon Trophy, while Cantlay can cap off a quietly phenomenal season by winning his first FedExCup title.

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– Speaking of McIlroy, his season average of 2.08 strokes gained tee-to-green per round is the best by anyone since his own 2012 performance, where he averaged 2.35. Couple that with his best-ever season on the greens – he’s a career-best 25th on Tour this season in strokes gained putting, and up to fourth in putts per green in regulation. Just two seasons ago he ranked 159th and 85th respectively in those two stats.

Tiger Woods won’t be there to defend his title this week, but this Woods record was too good to not share: in 2007, he shot a 23-under-par score of 257 at East Lake. That is the best in Tour Championship history – by six shots.