It is quite the feat for a $15m first prize, hiked by $5m from previous years, not to be the main topic of discussion at the Tour Championship. A switch of format, as the PGA Tour seeks a fairer and simpler conclusion to its FedEx Cup, has dominated the buildup at East Lake. A 30-man field is about to step into uncharted territory.
In linking golf’s most illustrious names to the domain of amateurs, a handicap system has been implemented. From an existing position as the leading points scorer in the FedEx Cup, Justin Thomas begins the season-ending event at 10 under par and holding a two-shot advantage over Patrick Cantlay. Five players starting out at even par complete the field. Unlike before, when the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup were separate, and complicated, entities, the winner walks off with the biggest bounty in golf.
Thomas branded his scenario “weird”. “I’m just going to have to try to play another golf tournament and act like everyone’s starting at zero and try to shoot the lowest 72 holes,” he said. “Because I know if I do that then I should be OK.”
“Obviously we changed it because we thought it was for the better, but like anything, you don’t really know until a couple years where you see what happens. It could be for the better, hopefully it’s for the better. We think it would be, or else we wouldn’t have changed it.”
Thomas firmly rebuked the notion that the pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow was in his thoughts. “Money has never driven me,” he said. “I hope it never will. I play to win trophies, win championships, be the best player to ever walk the planet, and that’s all I play for.”
Rory McIlroy, who is five shots adrift of Thomas before a Thursday ball is struck, is similarly unsure whether this innovation is altogether valid. He won $10m in the FedEx Cup’s previously volatile form, whereby a complex points table – as changed hole by hole – determined the overall outcome. Players could see their exact positions via leaderboards but the public at large struggled to comprehend the detail.
“The field right now is spread by 10 shots,” said the Northern Irishman. “That could theoretically go down to six shots by the start of the second day depending on how everyone plays. So that’s probably my favourite thing about it. Then again, you could shoot the best score of the week and not win the golf tournament. If that happens to someone, it’s going to be hard for them to wrap their head around.
“We just had a breakfast with some of the sponsors and what I said to them was: ‘If we’re at the PGA Tour trying to do the season of championships, where it starts at the Players in March, goes through the four majors and culminates with the FedEx Cup, if the FedEx Cup really wants to have this legacy in the game like some of these other championships do, is people starting the tournament on different numbers the best way to do it?’ That’s my only thing.
“I know it’s definitely a simplified version and format and people will understand it better. I think it gives more guys a chance to win this week. If you look at it just from that lens, it probably is better this way.”
McIlroy also admitted the scale of first prize on offer had presented him with a dilemma. “It’s definitely a thought that came into my head, how can we make ourselves more relatable to the fans?” said the 30-year-old. “And having $15m front and centre isn’t probably the best way to do it.
“But at the same time, if you turn on Sports Center, you turn on any other shows, you’re looking at football players and baseball players, basketball players getting $150m over four years. So it’s front and centre over there and it’s guaranteed. This isn’t guaranteed for us, you’ve got to play to earn it.”
McIlroy raised a smile when the currently hot topic of pace of play was put to him. The European Tour released an action plan on Monday, which barely registered with its most high-profile member. “I only read the headline,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t go deeper into it. I’ve had enough of the slow play stuff.” Join the club, Rory.