The Tour Championship Preview from 15th Club

September 2, 2020
Justin Ray

When Jon Rahm holed that improbable 66-foot putt to beat Dustin Johnson in a playoff to win the BMW Championship, it tied a ribbon on some near-impossible numbers about his weekend.

Tour Champs_Request 4

For one, Rahm’s opening 36-hole total score of 146 was the highest by a player to win a PGA Tour event in more than 21 years. Not since Paul Lawrie’s win at the 1999 Open Championship – a tournament more remembered for the 72nd hole collapse by Jean Van de Velde – had a player had a worse total score through two rounds and gone on to victory.

Rahm assembled a 16-shot turnaround from rounds 1-2 to rounds 3-4 (146 on Thursday and Friday; 130 on the weekend), the largest by a PGA Tour winner since Rory McIlroy’s maiden PGA Tour win at the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship. After gaining less than half-a-stroke on the field tee-to-green through two rounds, Rahm gained nearly seven on the weekend.

This week will be the 100th official worldwide start (events counted by the OWGR) for Rahm since turning professional after the 2016 U.S. Open. Incredibly, through 99 official events, Rahm has racked up 11 wins – and maybe even more impressively – has finished in the top-ten in more than half of his starts.

That’s far more than McIlroy, who turned pro much younger and took his lumps before breaking into superstardom. Rory had just two wins and a 39% top-ten rate through 99 events as a pro.

Tour Champs_Request 2

How about the phenom Jordan Spieth? Spieth had ten wins through 99 worldwide starts (two of them major championships), and a 45% top-ten clip. Tiger Woods is, of course, the impossible standard: through 99 worldwide starts counted by the OWGR, Woods had 26 wins and a near-70% top-ten rate.

For all his well-earned acclaim, it’s possible that Jon Rahm is underrated as a player.

COURSE CHARACTERISTICS

There was always something odd about a season culminating on a par three. The nines were flipped at East Lake Golf Club before the 2016 Tour Championship and changed that – now, the players finish with a par five that has yielded nearly as many eagles and birdies (235) as pars and bogeys (242) over the last four years.

The two most penalizing fairways to miss on the golf course in recent years have been the 8th (+0.63 stroke differential since 2016 when missing off the tee) and 7th (+0.53). The rough was particularly difficult last year – players had an average proximity to the hole of 52’4” from the rough in 2019, the third-toughest such number on the Tour all season.

Scoring usually isn’t too wild at East Lake: Rory McIlroy’s true score last year of 13-under (the leaderboard said 18-under with the 5-under positioning head start) tied the lowest winning total here since 2008.

KEY PLAYERS IN THE FIELD

Tour Champs_Request 3

– In each of his last three PGA Tour events, Dustin Johnson has held the 54-hole lead or co-lead. Johnson is the first person to do that since Tiger Woods did it in 2007-08 – the 2007 Tour Championship, 2008 Farmers Insurance Open and 2008 Arnold Palmer Invitational. Woods won all three of those – with a win at the WGC Stroke Play squeezed in-between, to boot.

Incredibly, when Johnson was defeated by Jon Rahm in the playoff at the BMW Championship, it snapped a streak of ten straight PGA Tour playoff victories by a player ranked number one in the world. The previous sitting number one to lose? Woods, at the 1998 Nissan Open (now known as the Genesis Invitational), when Tiger was defeated by Billy Mayfair. It remains the only playoff Woods has lost in a PGA Tour event.

As the top points-earner entering the event, Johnson will begin the Tour Championship with a score of 10-under. DJ is probably the last player in the field that needs a head start: in his last four events, he has a scoring average of 66.9, is 53 strokes under par and is racking up 3.38 strokes gained total per round.

Collin Morikawa had a rough go of it through six rounds of the playoffs – he followed up a missed cut at TPC Boston with a 76-73 start to the week at the BMW. But over the closing 36 at Olympia Fields, the PGA Champion might have rediscovered something. In his last two rounds, he was 4-under-par and hit more than 72 percent of his greens in regulation. Morikawa gained more than seven full strokes on the field tee-to-green on the weekend, something that bodes well entering Atlanta.

Justin Thomas has a pronounced trend when it comes to his strokes gained approach ranks the last six seasons:

2014-15 – 35th

2015-16 – 20th

2016-17 – 6th

2017-18 – 4th

2018-19 – 2nd

2019-20 – 1st

– Sunday marked the eighth consecutive finish for Rory McIlroy outside the top-ten, his longest such streak worldwide since a 13-tournament drought from October 2007 through May 2008. It should be noted that McIlroy was 18 years old when that streak began – just a baby. Speaking of which, that may explain some of Rory’s self-professed struggles with focus recently. McIlroy and his wife Erica are expecting their first child very soon.

Tour Champs_Request 1

From a golf perspective, McIlroy has averaged 4.46 birdies per round at East Lake since his debut there in 2012, the most of any player with at least three starts in that span. Rory’s cumulative score to par of 38-under is also the best of anyone in this tournament since 2012.

Webb Simpson enters the final week of the PGA Tour season leading in scoring average, a statistic he finished third in a season ago. Simpson is currently tied for 108th on the PGA Tour in driving distance – not a poor number, but in the bottom half of qualified players on the Tour in 2019-2020. Only one player since 1990 has won the scoring title with a driving distance ranking lower than 108: Luke Donald, who ranked 147th back in 2011.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

Last week at the BMW Championship, Tiger Woods did not make a single birdie on a par five. It was the first time in his PGA Tour career he played an entire 72-hole tournament without at least one birdie or eagle on a par five. Woods is 2,132 strokes under par on par fives in his PGA Tour career.