ATLANTA — The detractors are plenty, and for seemingly good reason. The new and — allegedly — improved Tour Championship that really isn’t a tournament but will decide the FedEx Cup champion has a few issues that maybe — just maybe — could be excused if the players atop the leaderboard continue to do their part.
Contrived? Certainly. Confusing? Well, not really, but the concept has clearly befuddled many. Cheesy? Given the astronomical amount of money at stake, sure.
But in the end, more than anything, the PGA Tour was looking to bring the best players in the world together for a series of season-ending tournaments while hoping there would be some good and compelling golf along the way.
So far, through two rounds at East Lake, the wacky format seems less of an issue, with the players atop the leaderboard the story, instead.
Brooks Koepka is the leader with 36 holes to play in the season-ending event that pays $15 million to the winner. Winning for the fourth time this season would put a defining cap on a player-of-the year effort, which would go a long way toward overshadowing any issues with how the Tour Championship was constructed.
Koepka got to 13 under (he began Thursday at 7 under) with a two-putt birdie on the 18th green. Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy are a stroke back. And Xander Schauffele, who eagled the final hole, is two back.
Who wouldn’t wish for any tournament — well, it’s not really a tournament — to have names such as Koepka, Thomas and McIlroy in the top positions, with a handful of other players a hot round away from joining them?
Big names tend to take care of numerous issues that are often talking points at golf tournaments, such as course set-up, weather, timing or — in this case — format. And having Koepka, the No. 1 player in the world, battling two former FedEx Cup champions in McIlroy (2016) and Thomas (2017) potentially over the final 36 holes is rich with possibilities. Throw in Schauffele, who won the Tour Championship two years ago while Thomas was winning the FedEx, and it’s a pretty good foursome at the top.
So much pre-event talk centered around the new arrangement that gave Thomas a two-shot lead before he ever put his tee in the ground. As the FedEx Cup leader, that was his reward, with players falling farther behind the lower they stood on the FedEx list.
“If he came out with five straight birdies, it would be like, “OK, we’re done,”’ said Paul Casey, who is in fifth place, four back.
But Thomas didn’t do that during the “opening” round on Thursday, shooting even-par 70 which meant he didn’t budge from his spot at 10 under. That allowed Koepka, who was three back to start, and McIlroy, who was five behind, to stay in the race.
And it meant that players such as Schauffele and Casey might also have a say as the weekend progresses — or anyone else who can put a low round together.
While the start might have been staggered, the look now is how any tournament would appear with 36 holes to play. There are nine players within seven strokes of the lead, so the idea that a large deficit could not be overcome during the course of four rounds was off base.
“You kind of look at it more like a five-round tournament,” said Matt Kuchar, who is seven strokes back in a tie for seventh. “The guys came in wherever they were, that was round one of five. Even guys 10 back. I was in a position six shots back, and you put me six shots back going into Sunday’s final round, I feel like I’ve got a chance. You put me six back with 72 holes to go, I’ve definitely got a chance.”
Of course, there’s the matter of who is shooting the lowest score, an aspect that will continue to be debated.
By straight scores, McIlroy, Schauffele and Casey are all 7 under — and yet they trail.
“As is right,” Casey said. “That handicapping system, I think it makes sense right now.”
Thomas shot 68 on Friday to finish at 12 under — he’s 2 under for 36 holes — and is reaping the benefits having started the Tour Championship with a staggered lead.
“[Friday] felt normal; [Thursday] was weird,” he said. “It’s just so odd looking over and seeing 10 under (starting the round). I don’t care who you are, I have a hard time believing that anybody is going to play different. I would think everybody is going to play differently when they start the tournament with the lead versus everyone being tied.
“I thought it was going to be easy for me to just play a tournament. It wasn’t. At least for me it wasn’t. I thought it was difficult to stay aggressive, but then again, I wasn’t driving it very well, so I couldn’t be aggressive. [Friday] definitely felt more normal.”
Seeing Koepka’s name atop a leaderboard, of course, is the new normal — at least at the big events. After a somewhat middling two playoff tournaments at Liberty National and Medinah, which saw him slip to third in the FedEx Cup standings, Koepka is right there again after shooting 6 under for two rounds.
A swing that had gone missing for a time is seemingly back in sync, and Koepka is talking a good game, too.
“Everybody makes a big deal about (the format), but most of the time when we tee off on Thursday, we’re already six, seven behind because the morning wave is done,” he reasoned. “It’s not a big deal. You just go out there and try to close that gap, and I’ve done a good job with that.”
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan made it clear earlier this week that he did not believe the FedEx Cup final event to be a “tournament.” It is a continuation of a “season-long” points race that will culminate with a player getting a huge monetary prize and a nice Cup, too.
That didn’t stop the chatter — and might still not — but having three players at the top who have combined for nine major titles is not a bad way to seize a different sort of attention this weekend.