‘I’m not a fan’: Is the Tour Championship format working? Pros are lukewarm at best
Welcome to the only PGA Tour event all year played like your country club’s member guest!
Yes, most weekend warriors can relate to this week’s format at the Tour Championship because it features a staggered start.
Or in other words; handicap strokes.
Well, sort of. Instead of worse players (or in this case, lower-ranked) being given strokes to help level the playing field, it’s the top players who are given the advantage and given a head start based on their play this season.
For the players, it’s unusual to say the least. For Scottie Scheffler, who starts the event with a two-shot lead at 10 under by virtue of being the FedEx Cup leader, he doesn’t even recall if he’s ever been given strokes before.
“I can’t remember anything off the top of my head if I was ever the one getting strokes. I’m not going to give you a hard ‘no,’ but I can’t think of any off the top of my head,” Scheffler said Wednesday. “It’s nice being on this end of the strokes versus having to give them up to everybody, which is nice, like I have to do at home.”
Patrick Cantlay took advantage of the format last year, winning the BMW Championship the week before to springboard to the top of the standings and start the Tour Championship with a two-shot lead. He went on to the win the tournament, and by extension the FedEx Cup by a stroke over Jon Rahm.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he likes the system, especially considering he won the BMW again this season, but instead starts two behind Scheffler this week.
“I’m not a fan,” Cantlay said bluntly Tuesday. “I think there’s got to be a better system, although frankly I don’t know what that better system is.”
Perhaps no one may have more reason to gripe with the Tour Championship format than Cantlay’s friend, Xander Schauffele. Schauffele has a remarkable record at East Lake, winning in his first appearance there in 2017 as a rookie.
Since the format change in 2019, Schauffele has never finished outside the top-5 at the Tour Championship and in 2020, Schauffele had the best aggregate score at East Lake by three strokes. But that year, Dustin Johnson played well enough to keep Schauffele out of the mix and thanks to his start atop the leaderboard, won the tournament by three over Schauffele.
Schauffele’s starting score that week: three under.
“I’ve obviously been on sort of both sides of that fence, too, from a competition standpoint,” Schauffele said Tuesday. “I understand why it’s the way it is, but I think the overall consensus just from talking to players is maybe a sit-down needs to happen to sort of reshape it or try to make it better, at least come up with options and then show it to us or just give it a whirl.”
It seems like a sit down between players did well for the Tour’s schedule and structure, but the opinions of what needs to be changed seem far from agreed upon.
U.S. Open Champion Matt Fitzpatrick brought up how he finished 15th in the standings and will start this week at three under, while Cameron Smith came in 6th, but is only one stroke ahead. He suggested the gap may be “a little bit unfair.”
And of course with a subject as polarizing as the format, there are still players who like the format, Fitzpatrick said.
“I actually spoke to [Collin Morikawa] about it last week, and he defended it,” Fitzpatrick said.
Morikawa entered last year’s playoffs as the No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings. He underperformed in the playoffs, missing the cut at the Northern Trust and finishing tied for 63rd at the BMW. He played poorly at East Lake too, and walked away with a T26 finish in the FedEx Cup.
Fitzpatrick chalked it up to the playoff events having too many FedEx Cup points, being worth four times as many as a regular Tour stop.
“He’s got more class than me, I guess, I’d be fuming if I was him,” Fitzpatrick said of Morikawa. “I just think it’s hard to sort of do these extra points in our game. I did have a thought that somehow the Playoffs could be match play somehow where it’s a bit more realistic to every other sports playoffs if that’s the way the Tour want to go.”
Match play was something Cantlay said could be part of the “limitless” solutions to the format.
Fitzpatrick said Morikawa continued his defense by comparing the format to playoffs of other sports. That’s where Fitzpatrick disagreed.
“Golf is just so different to the other sports,” he said. “That’s why I think looking at match play would probably be more of an answer because you’ve got a team that makes the Playoffs in last place or whatever and you don’t think they’re going to go anywhere, and then they end up going all the way.
“And then you could have a guy say in 90th gets all the way to the final.”
It is hard to argue the three FedEx Cup winners were unworthy of the title since the format change. Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Cantlay each led the PGA Tour in wins during the season in which they won. However, only McIlroy has won the Tour Championship not starting from the pole position at 10 under.
In fact, in 2019 when McIlroy won, Justin Thomas was the pre-round leader at the Tour Championship, despite only winning once that season, the week prior at the BMW Championship.
Regardless of the format, players seem to be treating it the same. Scheffler called his two-stroke lead “nice,” but he said it won’t change how he plays the week.
“I’m still just preparing like it’s a regular four-day event and kind of going from there,” he said. “Definitely haven’t felt like I’ve been sleeping on a lead or anything like that. Just kind of feel like I’m just getting ready for a tournament.”