Winner: Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy would roll on to win the Tour Championship and the FedExCup that went with it, and the $15 million that went with the FedExCup, but history would note that first he had to come from five behind — and that was before the tournament had even started.
Was this the Alice-in-Wonderland Open? Not really. It was in the first round that fans realized how different this Tour Championship would be. The scoreboard told the story. Bearing in mind that East Lake is a par 70, they noted that Xander Schauffele had shot 64, Brooks Koepka 67 and Justin Thomas a par 70, and yet all three were tied for the lead at 10 under.
Welcome to what was believed to be the first PGA Tour event played under a handicap system, one that through points awards ensures that the winner of the Tour Championship would also be the FedExCup champion, thereby focusing attention on one winner. The key was the “Starting Strokes” awarded to players based on their seeding from the season-long accrued points. The top seed was Justin Thomas, getting 10 strokes. In descending order came Patrick Cantlay eight, Brooks Koepka seven, Patrick Reed six, and Rory McIlroy five. Seeds 6-10 were at four each; 11-15 at three; 16-20 at two; 21-25 at one, and 26-30 at even par.
The players were as unsure as anyone. “I’m sure it’s going to be weird tomorrow,” Thomas said.
“As long as J.T. [Justin Thomas] doesn’t go out and go shoot 62s on the first two days, then I think everybody has a chance,” Koepka said. Said McIlroy: “I think it’s more the psychology of it. … starting at a different position than the rest of the field…. I think you have to play the best golf that you can.”
The math in the first round: Thomas shot par 70, but had 10 starting strokes; Schauffele (64), six under plus four starting strokes, and Koepka (67), three under plus seven starting strokes. They led at 10 under. McIlroy (66), at four under plus his five starting strokes, was nine under and trailed by one.
If the tournament was a scorekeeper’s scramble, it was an accountant’s fantasy. At the end, McIlroy took golf ’s biggest prize, $15 million, and joined Tiger Woods as the only ones to win the FedExCup twice. He shot East Lake in 66-67-68-66–267, 13 under par, but that wasn’t his winning score. Under the handicap system, his scores in the rounds were 4-3-2-4, a total of 13 under, plus his five starting strokes. So his winning score was 18 under. Schauffele was second at 14 under and won $5 million; Thomas and Koepka tied for third at 13 under and won $3.5 million each. Dustin Johnson and Lucas Glover tied for last and won $400,000 each.
No matter the scoring, this Tour Championship came down to a McIlroy-Koepka shootout. Paired in the final group in the final round, both had parred the first five holes and birdied No. 6. For a reference point, McIlroy led by one in regular scoring. Then at the par-four No. 7, McIlroy rolled in a 25-foot putt for a birdie, and Koepka double-bogeyed out of the trees.
Coming in, Koepka lost his way and bogeyed three straight — the 12th from the rough and a bunker, the 13th on three putts from 19 feet, and the 14th out of the rough. McIlroy birdied 12 and 13 but bogeyed the next two. Both birdied the 17th, and McIlroy closed with a birdie at 18. Schauffele had a three-birdie, three-bogey 70 and 14 points. Thomas closed with a 68 (and 277 total) and Koepka with a 72 (and 274) and tied for third at 13 under.
“He just played better,” Koepka said. And to borrow an observation, a victory by any other means, tastes as sweet. Said McIlroy: “I’m going to enjoy this one tonight.”