Australian Marc Leishman made it to the Tour Championship as a PGA Tour rookie in 2009 and figured with confidence that it would become a regular stop on his schedule. Until he pulled into the parking lot at East Lake earlier this week, he hadn’t been back.
“The first year I got in and wanted to make a habit of being here, and I didn’t,” Leishman said, “so it’s nice to be back here. I feel ready to play well. Golf’s a funny game. It can change very quickly. Certainly not entitled to anything, but feeling good with how I’m playing.”
As he should. Leishman, 33, finished third at the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston earlier this month (he shot 30-40 on Sunday) and rebounded outside Chicago at BMW last weekend with his second PGA Tour victory of the season.
He is one of five players here at East Lake (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm are the others) who could capture the FedEx Cup (and its $10 million winner’s bounty) simply by winning the tournament. Sounds easy, no?
There are varying levels of play and players on the PGA Tour. Golfers scratch and claw and try to get into major championships played on the biggest stages, and if they elevate their World Ranking high enough, they can compete in four World Golf Championships events as well.
Advancing to the Tour Championship, something only 30 players accomplish each season, ranks as one of golf’s most underrated achievements. Get to East Lake, and the perks are many.
Getting to East Lake means ending one’s season with a pair of guaranteed-money, no-cut events, and now being eligible for several more (such as the Tournament of Champions, for winners, and WGCs). Because those fields are top-heavy, the World Ranking points to be had are plentiful, and high finishes can propel a player into a refreshing cycle of perpetuating success.
Building and totally controlling a schedule for 2017-18 is the perk that most players relish above all else, but that’s not a unanimous No. 1. When Tony Finau chipped in at 18 to place the finishing touches on a final-round 64 at the BMW, it jumped him from 39th to 24th in the FedEx Cup standings, giving him a start in his first Tour Championship.
Nice, for sure, but on Sunday, his mind was wandering to something else.
“To me, it’s Augusta (the Masters),” said the long-hitting Finau. “It’s a place I’ve dreamed of playing since I was a kid. I started playing golf in the summer of ’97, and a big reason was because of Tiger, watching what he was able to do at the Masters in ’97. So it’s pretty special for me to be able to go there and play, and to know that I’ve locked it in.”
Finau is a perfect example of how quickly a player’s fortunes can change in the FedEx Cup series. A pedestrian round on Sunday at Conway Farms, and he’d have headed home to Utah, his season done. Instead, he now has a bonus playoff start, and at No. 53 in the world, is in position to climb inside the top 50, a season’s goal. Now he’ll have starts in the HSBC Champions and WGC-Bridgestone, two events for which he’d never previously qualified.
“Had he not made it here,” Boyd Summerhays, Finau’s coach, said as the two made their way off the first tee for a practice round at East Lake on Wednesday afternoon, “it would have been a good season. Now, it’s a great season.”
At 41, Pat Perez is the oldest player in this week’s field. He has waited, well, a lifetime to get to the Tour Championship.
“Yeah, I didn’t think it was going it to take me 16 years to get here,” said Perez, a winner late in 2016 (Mayakoba) who stayed in the top 15 in points all season, “but it has, and I’m just going to enjoy every minute of it.”
Perez will start at No. 11 in the playoff standings, and would need to win and require a laundry list of things to unfold in order to hoist the FedEx Cup trophy alongside the Tour Championship trophy (No. 1 Jordan Spieth finishing T-6 or worse, No. 2 Justin Thomas finishing T-4 or worse, etc.) Bill Haas is the player who came from the farthest back, starting the Tour Championship seeded 25th before winning it all in 2011. Perez, who can be a feisty, fiery, glass-half-empty kind of guy, doesn’t see all the right dominoes tumbling perfectly in his favor.
“For me,” Perez said, “it’s like winning the PowerBall (lottery), because all the top guys would have to play bad, which they haven’t done all year. So for them to all do it at once and me win, it’s about the same odds as the PowerBall.”
Does he even play PowerBall?
“No,” he said, “no chance.”
This week he will. Heck, even if a player finished 30th in this week’s field and 30th in the FedEx playoff standings, his account will be boosted $315,000 come Monday morning.
The Tour Championship is an odd event, given that there is a tournament inside a tournament. For a guy such as Jon Rahm, 22, who a year and a half ago was getting $35 per diem for his meals while playing golf at Arizona State, it can be hard to wrap his head around a potential haul of $11.5 million this week ($1.5 million winner’s check, plus the FedEx bounty).
“It wasn’t that long ago when I was counting the days and how much I could spend to be able to eat the last day of the month,” Rahm said. “Yeah, I mean, it’s hard not to think about it (the $10 million bonus) for any of us, but I think more than that we all play for the pride of being named FedEx Cup champions. That’s far more important than any economic prize, I think.”
One year ago, Sunday’s final round delivered a thrilling finish, with Rory McIlroy winning a three-man playoff for the Tour Championship and holding off Dustin Johnson, the eventual player of the year, for the overall FedEx title.
At 24th in the standings, Finau, one of the last guys to get into the Tour Championship, may be too far back to contend for the FedEx Cup, but there are other gains to be had. He looks upon his situation this week as one giant opportunity that very well might open up several others. He has checked a Masters start off his wish list, but now there is more to chase.
“Augusta, to me, is the biggest perk, but to be in this field, this week, I’ve got my eye on the prize,” Finau said. “Why not? Why not carry that momentum right into this week and keep pushing forward?”