1ft, 3ft, 4ft, 6ft, 8ft, 8ft, 12ft – these are the distances of putts holed for seven birdies in what was a truly exceptional back-nine of golf from Norway’s Viktor Hovland in the final round of the BMW Championship on Sunday. One that saw him walk away with the title at Olympia Fields.
He entered the final round trailing the overnight co-leaders of Scottie Scheffler and Matt Fitzpatrick by three strokes and despite a positive start found himself further behind entering his back nine, trailing the duo by four.
He then found that incredible level of golf from the 10th onwards. Starting with a 130-yard approach to 3ft there and finishing with an outstanding 160-yard shot to 6ft on a tough final hole to complete his birdie/birdie finish; with Scheffler making a 3-putt bogey on 17, Hovland’s win was all but secured.
It was one of the finest and most impressive couple of hours of golf we’ve seen all year and continues a fantastic year for the star Norwegian, after he won the Memorial Tournament a couple of months ago. With confidence flying high he is going to be a major player in Rome in around a months’ time.
This week brings to an end the 2022/23 PGA Tour season, as we head to East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia for the Tour Championship. An event that is intertwined with the finale of the FedExCup, with this week’s 30-man field battling it out for that huge $18million prize.
Tournament History & Format
The Tour Championship debuted in 1987 as the Nabisco Championship, at which eight-time major winner Tom Watson came out on top of a 30-man field that was decided by the end of season money list. Whilst that limited 30-man field has remained, the tournament has evolved over the years.
It became the closing event of the FedExCup Playoffs in 2007 when the season-ending series was thought up, though despite having a substantial bearing in deciding where the FedExCup ended up, it was still a tournament in its own right. Meaning it was possible to win the FedExCup but not the Tour Championship and vice versa. However, that all changed in 2019, when a change in format essentially meant that the Tour Championship and climax to the FedExCup race became one and the same thing.
This change in format now sees the top 30 players in the FedExCup rankings assigned a starting score based on their position in those rankings. The top-ranked player – Scottie Scheffler this year – starts on a score of -10, whilst the next best (Viktor Hovland) is on -8 and so on until players ranked 26-30 start at level par. It now means that whoever wins the Tour Championship wins the FedExCup.
Two of those four renewals since the change in format have gone to the player entering the week at the top of the leaderboard – Dustin Johnson in 2020 and Patrick Cantlay in 2021.
Rory McIlroy is the only player who has been able to overcome a starting deficit to win the title, managing that on the other two occasions. In the first edition under this new format he came from five back on a starting score of -5 and did it again last year but from one shot further back; starting six behind on -4 to eventually beat Scottie Scheffler and Sungjae Im by one stroke.
That victory was the Northern Irishman’s third in the event and tied him level with Tiger Woods. He returns to defend this week and if history is anything to go by, he’ll have every chance from 3 back on -7, to gain what would be a record-breaking victory.
East Lake Golf Club has been the permanent home of the Tour Championship since 2004 and typically provides a tough test of golf, with an average best score of -12.7 over the last ten renewals. Though Rory McIlroy’s -17 last year was the best score at the course since Tiger shot -23 in 2007.
This traditional, gently rolling, tree-lined course is a reasonably lengthy par 70, measuring 7346 yards and was originally designed by Tom Bendelow in 1904. However it is the 1913 Donald Ross redesign which produced the course we now know today, with several renovations by Rees Jones since 1994 being done with the intention of recapturing Ross’ original work.
The course is challenging throughout.
The sloped fairways are on the tight side and made to feel even tighter by strategically placed bunkers and trees which overhang many of the fairways; requiring players to not just find the short grass but hit it on the correct side to avoid an obstructed view.
They’re tough to hit and with thick bermudagrass rough that eats up many a golf ball, it ranks among the eight toughest courses on which to find greens when missing the fairways.
The difficulty in finding and punishment for missing fairways then puts pressure on your approaches into the subtly undulating greens, where regular elevation changes make approaches into them even more demanding. The greens are fast and around average in size; many are dominated to the front by intimidating bunkers, largely prohibiting approaches along the ground, and with more of that thick rough and shaved run-offs for further protection, precision into them is imperative.
East Lake is a little ordinary to start but kicks into gear when water – which is in-play on six holes – seriously enters the fray on the 455-yard par 4 8th hole, where it protects the entire left-hand side of the hole. This is immediately followed by another big defence of the course; it’s lengthy and challenging par 3s.
The 235-yard par 3 9th is one of four par 3s on the course, three of which come in at over 200 yards, whilst the 2nd hole is the only one short of that but only just, at 197 yards. The 211-yard 15th is particularly nervy, with an approach played into a green that is largely surrounded by water; no doubting testing the nerves of the main challengers late on Sunday.
There is a lot of variety in the twelve par 4s, which range from the potentially brutally difficult 520-yard 14th hole. Though they are countered by a number that can be attacked, including two at under 400 yards (3rd and 12th).
The two par 5s are good birdie/eagle chances. The 525-yard 6th hole is very short for the modern game and though danger lurks, if you’re not picking up shots on that hole you’ll be losing out to the field over the week. The course finishes on the 590-yard 18th, which can be shortened significantly with a downhill tee-shot, though you can’t go too far as water awaits at the bottom. The green is well protected, with run-offs making it extra difficult to hit but anywhere up and around gives you another excellent shot at birdie on a course that doesn’t give up chances lightly.
- SG: Off-the-Tee
- Proximity from 200+ yards
- SG: Around-the-Greens
- SG: Putting (bermudagrass)
- Par 4 Scoring
It’s difficult to gauge the exact skillset needed in such a small elite field but there have been a couple of very clear factors in deciding winners here. With the driver looking of specific key for success.
Rory McIlroy has three times shot the best score here and as you’d expect, excelled with driver every time; ranking 1st when winning in 2016 and 2019, whilst was 5th last year. Each of the last seven winners ranked 6th or better off-the-tee, with Xander Schauffele also leading the field in this area when winning in 2017.
It’s always a surprise to come across an event where approach play doesn’t feature as prominently in the make ups of the winners but that is what we have at East Lake. It’s a difficult course to get your approaches close and it generally proves much more important to be a strong green hitter than being ultra precise in approach.
Six of the last seven winners ranked 7th or better in GIR, with it virtually always proving important to rank inside the top 10 in this area, to have a chance of hitting the top 3 on the leaderboard at the end of the week.
If we are looking for precision in approach, it’s the long irons we should look towards, particularly in approaches over 200 yards. This is not only helpful on those three par 3s but also on the two par 5s and that lengthy par-4 14th hole.
The course should play quite firm this week with severe heat set to befall the area. With this we should see plenty of greens missed with those run-offs and you will need to be sharp around-the-greens. Jon Rahm ranked 1st in this area when firing the lowest score in 2021; whilst Rory and Schauffele in 2019 and 2017 respectively, both ranked 2nd.
In addition, proven quality on firm and fast bermudagrass greens will be an understandable asset and with twelve par 4s dominating the course; managing these holes looks of the most importance.
Similarly to when looking at what stats are needed, when we are dealing with an elite 30-man field, it’s not quite as beneficial to read too much into crossover form as a means to finding comp courses. These are the very best players in the world and they are liable to go well just about anywhere, regardless of whether the course is an ideal fit or not.
Though when we combine this with other lines of interest, such as course stats and design features, we can find a few clear ways into the event this week.
The three events that stand out to me are the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course.
All three are challenging courses with bermudagrass/bermudagrass-base greens where strong drivers typically thrive. Quail Hollow and the Copperhead Course are traditionally tree-lined and possess many tight fairways/driving lines. Though Bay Hill is a little more exposed, fairways are becoming gradually more difficult to find thanks to the tightening of them a few years ago.
Each of the three courses have greens which are tough to find and are as similarly punishing as East Lake when you start getting loose with the long game. Additionally, they all have a tough set of lengthy par 3s; Bay Hill and Innisbrook possessing three at 200 yards + like this week’s course.
It’s anticipated to be a clear, bright and hot week in Atlanta, with temperatures approaching 40°C over the course of the week and little in the way of rain or strong winds.
Whilst most viewers were sat in awe watching Hovland’s sensational back 9 on Sunday, there was plenty of excitement elsewhere during the final round of the BMW Championship; as players scrapped away to try and secure their place in this week’s field at East Lake.
There were tense moments for the #28, #29 and #30 ranked players in the FedExCup standings, Tyrrell Hatton, Jordan Spieth and Sepp Straka, who all looked like they could’ve fallen out of that top 30 at various times but just about made it through. With Sahith Theegala the man who will count himself the most unfortunate, just missing out at #31 in the rankings.
Only one change occurred within that top 30, where with an excellent 2nd-place finish, Matt Fitzpatrick jumped up from #40 entering last week to #10 at the conclusion of the event; Chris Kirk the man to lose his spot, dropping from #29 to #32.
There are five Tour Championship debutants in the field this week: Adam Schenk, Nick Taylor, Taylor Moore, Tom Kim and this year’s US Open champion, Wyndham Clark.
Scottie Scheffler’s runner-up finish at Olympia Fields saw him jump up to the top of the standings and means he will start on -10 on Thursday, whilst Hovland’s win sees him to second spot and a starting score of -8. Jon Rahm suffered the biggest drop of those near the top, going from #1 entering last week to #4 now and will start four back of Scheffler on -6 when play gets underway.
Full field list & their starting scores:
Scottie Scheffler -10
Viktor Hovland –8
Rory McIlroy -7
Jon Rahm -6
Lucas Glover -5
Max Homa -4
Patrick Cantlay -4
Brian Harman -4
Wyndham Clark -4
Matt Fitzpatrick -4
Tommy Fleetwood -3
Russell Henley -3
Keegan Bradley -3
Rickie Fowler -3
Xander Schauffele -3
Tom Kim -2
Sungjae Im -2
Tony Finau -2
Corey Conners -2
Si Woo Kim -2
Taylor Moore -1
Nick Taylor -1
Adam Schenk -1
Collin Morikawa -1
Jason Day -1
Sam Burns E
Emiliano Grillo E
Tyrrell Hatton E
Jordan Spieth E
Sepp Straka E
This event has been played four times under this format. Twice we’ve had the leader at the start of the week go on to win and the other two times, Rory happened.
He is closer this week than he has been on the other two occasions he won, sat in 3rd on -7; three behind Scheffler. Those two, along with Hovland, make up the top 3 in the betting, with Scheffler a 13/10 favourite, McIlroy next at 10/3 and Hovland a 5/1 shot, and with Rahm not quite in the same shape as these guys, I find it very difficult to see one of those top 3 not winning the lucrative prize on Sunday.
Fortunately for this event, we also have a 72-hole stroke play market priced up, which removes the handicapped starting scores and focuses solely on who shoots the best score this week, like a regular event.
With the lack of value in the main outright market, I’m going to focus my attention solely on that additional 72-hole stroke play market this week.
2.5 pts Max Homa each way (1/5 – 5 places) – 16/1
I’m going to start by going back to the well on Max Homa, who starts the week six back of the lead on -4. We’ve been on him the last two weeks, where he’s finished 6th at the St Jude and 5th at the BMW Championship, which has continued a pleasingly trending recent run of form over the last six weeks.
On his three starts prior to those two most recent efforts, Homa finished 21st at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, 12th at the Scottish Open and 10th in the Open Championship.
Over that time he’s been excellent off-the-tee, ranking 3rd in this field over the last twenty rounds and gaining strokes in each of his last seven starts with the club. Whilst he’s been strong with the short game throughout the year, ranking 5th on the greens and 35th around them. As the 11th-ranked par 4 scorer on tour, he’s a good fit for East Lake.
Homa showed this last year as he shot the 3rd-best score on his first visit to the course, where he drove the ball well and took to these greens, ranking 4th in both areas.
As a past winner at Quail Hollow and possessing top 10s in the Valspar Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Californian has all the form in the right places and looks well placed for another great performance this week.
1 pt Si Woo Kim each way (1/5 – 5 places) – 66/1
Si Woo Kim has been hitting the ball well for most of the year and with some small improvements on the greens last week, he can enjoy a positive week on another Donald Ross design.
Kim kicked off the year in style with a win in the Sony Open on his first start of 2023 and has maintained a solid level of form since, collecting eight further top 25s and another three top 10s; including going close to a second win of the year at the AT&T Byron Nelson when 2nd to Jason Day.
Though only one of those top 25s have come in his last six starts, there’s been little to worry about and he’s continued to look strong with the long game.
Si Woo has been particularly in-tune with the driver, ranking 7th in this field over the last fifty rounds and 25th for the season overall OTT. In addition he’s rock-solid in most of the other stats of interest this week, ranking 47th in par 4 scoring, 54th around-the-greens and 55th in approach proximity over 200 yards.
Though the putter has been a bit of a concern of late, there were more positive signs last week. As he countered the poor opening and finishing rounds on the greens with two of his best rounds in recent weeks in the middle rounds of the tournament.
The Korean has only played here once before, finishing an encouraging 10th in 2016. Though he doesn’t have much form on any of the potential correlating courses mentioned above, he is no stranger to performing well on Donald Ross designs; possessing an excellent record in the Wyndham Championship at Sedgefield Country Club. Where he’s won, finished 2nd and recorded two extra top 5s.
Kim can have no real expectation of taking away the top prize this week from eight off the pace but that should enable him to freewheel a little and if able to find a little more improvement on the greens, he’s as likely to catch fire as many.
0.75 pts Adam Schenk each way (1/5 – 5 places) – 150/1
This has been the best season of Adam Schenk’s career, culminating in this first visit to East Lake. He can cap it off with a fine debut effort at the course this week, which should suit if his strong record at the Valspar Championship is anything to go by.
Schenk has recorded six top 7 finishes this year, five of which have come over his last ten starts. Of those performances, he’s twice finished 2nd – at the Valspar Championship and in the Charles Schwab Challenge – and just two starts ago was 6th in the St Jude Championship, before finishing 34th at Olympia Fields last week.
He’s been pretty solid across all areas during that time, though it’s with his irons and on the greens he’s looked at his best, ranking 10th in approach and 15th in putting over the last three months. This replicates where he’s typically excelled throughout the year, ranking 36th in putting and 55th in approach; whilst it’s also encouraging to see him among the top 50 players on tour in proximity from 200+ yards.
That runner-up finish at the Valspar earlier in the year should act as a good guide, whilst a 13th-place finish at Quail Hollow in 2019 provides another boost; as does a top 10 in the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Donald Ross designed Detroit Golf Club this year.
Schenk will start down the field on -1, but I fancy him to finish what has been somewhat of a breakthrough year with a good effort on debut here and advance well up the leaderboard by Sunday evening.