FedEx Cup Playoffs: Tour gets it right with compelling start at East Lake

Butch Dill/USA TODAY Sports

FedEx Cup Playoffs: Tour gets it right with compelling start at East Lake

PGA Tour

FedEx Cup Playoffs: Tour gets it right with compelling start at East Lake

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ATLANTA – Somewhere, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan is smiling.

The organization’s new, unconventional scoring format for the Tour Championship, the season finale that decides the victor of $15 million and the FedEx Cup, was brought into question and criticized in some circles. For instance, a player could post the lowest 72-hole score this week and not win.

But such is the new world of the FedEx Cup and Monahan touted the new format being used for the first time in PGA Tour history, hailing its simplicity and volatility. While others shook their heads at the decision to determine the players’ starting score by their position in the FedEx Cup standings – Justin Thomas slept on a two-shot lead for four nights – the first round was true to Monahan’s words.

“At the beginning of the year, every player knows what the structure is for the FedEx Cup, and they organize their schedule and they organize themselves competitively to try and get here,” Monahan said this week. “I think the story lines that develop as you get to the back end of the year and into our playoffs, and the increased volatility that we’re delivering, is creating a compelling product for our fans.”

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The staggered scoring format eliminates the need for chalkboards to figure out what is going on. Instead, the staggered scoring system had the leaderboard frozen since last Sunday night. Thomas, the winner of last week’s BMW Championship, began at 10 under. Patrick Cantlay, second in the standings, was at 8 under, Brooks Koepka at 7 under and so forth to those 26th through 30th starting 10 shots back at even par.

Once the first tee ball hit the air, however, there was plenty of movement in the first round at East Lake. Xander Schauffele, the Tour Championship winner in 2017, started the day six shots back but swiftly moved to the top of the leaderboard with a 6-under-par 66 to sit at 10 under.

“It is what it is,” said Schauffele, who won twice earlier this year. “I mean, that’s how I’m taking it. I think everyone needed help from J.T. If J.T. went out and shot a pair of 65s, I don’t think the Tour would be very happy and I don’t think the rest of the field would be happy. But it looks to be a good tournament so far.”

Brooks Koepka at the 2019 Tour Championship. Photo: Butch Dill/USA TODAY Sports

Koepka started three back but moved into a share of the lead with a 67. The only three-time winner this season, including his fourth major championship title at the PGA Championship, said he found something on the back nine that led him to three birdies in the last four holes.

Adding to the stacked leaderboard is 2016 FedEx Cup champion Rory McIlroy, who is one back after a 66. Another stroke back is Matt Kuchar, a two-time winner this season who shot 66, and Cantlay, who stayed two back after his 70. The next six named on the leaderboard are Hideki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm, Patrick Reed, Adam Scott and reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland. Stacked indeed.

Thomas is still tied for the lead after a 70. He didn’t know how he’d feel on the first tee with the lead but said he did a good job of getting himself mentally ready for the unconventional start.

“I just didn’t hit enough fairways,” said Thomas, the 2017 FedExCup champion.

Thomas is still irked that he didn’t pull a Sunday double back in 2017, as he lost the Tour Championship to Schauffele by one shot. But there will not be a repeat.

Yes, the two could certainly replicate their closing duel, but there won’t be two winners. In another change this year, there no longer will be an awkward scene where two players are given hardware, as was the case last year when Tiger Woods’ victory in the Tour Championship overshadowed Justin Rose winning the FedExCup.

Instead, picture this scenario. Two players go into a playoff with the winner getting $15 million and the loser getting $5 million for finishing second. OK, loser might not exactly be the right word in this instance, but that $10 million difference will get some heads spinning and hearts racing.

And that’s what playoffs do.

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