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With the week-to-week drama we often forget the sheer scale of the PGA Tour: 46 tournaments across 6 nations and 23 states is a mammoth organisational undertaking, the like of which is unsurpassed in professional sport. David Hearn hit the first tee shot of this 2014/15 PGA Tour season at Silverado on the 15th October last year and now the Top 30 players in the season-long FedEx Cup standings find themselves at the Donald Ross-designed East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia. We started the campaign in a golfing world headed by Rory McIlroy and end the season with Australian Jason Day becoming the third player to hold the OWGR top spot in recent weeks after wins at Glen Abbey, Whistling Straits, Plainfield and Conway Farms. Can anyone in this stellar short field even get close to him around East Lake this week?
Qualifying for the Tour Championship is always a massive deal for plenty of players who don't reside in the OWGR Top 50 with invites to next season's WGC-Cadillac Championship, The Masters, US Open and Open Championships the reward. So congratulations to Tour Championship maidens Sang-Moon Bae, Daniel Berger, Steven Bowditch, Harris English and Danny Lee who are joined by J.B. Holmes, Kevin Kisner, Brooks Koepka and Robert Streb in making their East Lake debuts.
With regards the FEC finale, the standings are now reset which theoretically gives every player in the field this week a chance of scooping the 2015 FedEx Cup Champion crown and the $10 million winner's bonus. I won't even start to run through the scoring model, but safe to say that the Top 5 players in the FEC standings - namely Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson - all capture the title with a win this week at East Lake. You can read more here: what each player in the field needs to win the FEC
Over on the European Tour the Porsche European Open is a welcome addition to the schedule with Bernd Wiesberger, Charl Schwartzel, Graeme McDowell and Hunter Mahan (I did mention his OWGR quandary last week) in Bavaria to bag the inaugural title. Paul Williams has cast is eye over the tournament and you can read his thoughts on that event here.
2015 Punters League. Carl Pedley won the Punters League last week as he was the only entry to list Italian Open victor Rickard Karlberg and added Daniel Berger for good measure. A strong profit haul has boosted Carl to 3rd in the Overall Table behind Sean Colgan and Andrew Davies after Week 37. With a weekly £/€25 free bet prize, new entrants are always welcome - so enter your 6 players across the Tour Championship and Porsche European Open via our 2,700-strong facebook group now!
Course Guide: East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia first hosted the Tour Championship in 1998. Back then the tournament alternated every year with the Champions Golf Club in Houston, but East Lake has been the sole host since 2004. The course is a Donald Ross original which had a Rees Jones renovation in 2008 that included a change from Bentgrass to faster MiniVerde Bermudagrass putting surfaces. For research purposes other Ross designs include Aronimink, Pinehurst Number 2, Plainfield, the East Course at Oak Hill and Sedgefield.
East Lake Golf Club, East Atlanta, Georgia: Designer: Donald Ross 1913 with Rees Jones re-design 2008; Course Type: Technical; Par: 70; Length: 7,307 yards; Water Hazards: 3; Fairways: Meyer Zoysiagrass; Rough: Bermudagrass 2"; Greens: 6,200 sq.ft average featuring MiniVerde Bermudagrass; Stimpmeter: +12ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 70.42 (+0.42), Difficulty Rank 20 of 49 courses. 2013: 69.38 (-0.62), Difficulty Rank 20 of 43 courses. 2014: 70.26 (+0.26), Rank 20 of 48 courses.
Course Overview: East Lake is a long 7,300 yard, Par 70. The course's main defence is fast MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens which feature the Donald Ross trademark back to front pitch surrounded by tightly mown run-offs into collection areas. The green complexes are fast (12+ on the Stimpmeter) and contoured. East Lake is a traditional golf course that up until now (although with Jason Day who knows!) hasn't been overpowered by brute force and it has a definite Florida feel to it after weeks of up-state bentgrass action.
Driving accuracy undoubtedly helps around here with fairways surrounded by trees and Bermuda rough. The course also features quirky Meyer Zoysiagrass fairways which many players claim promotes flyers. 6 of the last 12 winners have been in the Top 5 for fairways hit, but high Greens in Regulation numbers are even more important as 3 of the last 5 winners topped the category on their way to victory. Since the 2008 Rees Jones re-design Henrik Stenson holds the tournament winning lowest total with -13/267 in a tournament that featured softened greens on Sunday.
Winners: 2014: Billy Horschel (-11); 2013: Henrik Stenson (-13); 2012: Brandt Snedeker (-10); 2011: Bill Haas (-9); 2010: Jim Furyk (-8).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published Tour Championship predictor is available here. You can build your own tailor-made model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Key players in the Top 5 of the Predictor are Jason Day (Predictor number 1), Justin Rose, Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth, and Henrik Stenson.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Open Championship / Barbasol and includes both PGA Tour and European Tour. Players must have played in a minimum of 3 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2014: Horschel 25/1; 2013: Stenson 16/1; 2012: Snedeker 40/1; 2011: Haas 45/1; 2010: Furyk 20/1; 2009: Mickelson 25/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the PGA Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Atlanta is here. Weather will be calmer and cooler than that experienced in Chicago last week. The build up to the tournament has seen dry conditions in the Atlanta area so I'm expecting firm conditions with potentially less rough than standard. Green speeds though should be fast which will make for higher scoring. There is a 30-40% chance of rain during the tournament's 4 days, with 15-20 km/h non-prevailing north-easterly breeze a feature across the opening 54 holes.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors:
Analysing the final stats of the last 5 winners here since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to how East Lake sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Brandt Snedeker: "This set of par‑3s that we play at East Lake is probably the toughest set of par‑3s we play all year on tour. I think all four of them are ranked in the top nine toughest holes on the golf course which we don't see very often. Most important element here is hitting the fairways. If you don't hit the fairways here, you can't be aggressive. You can't be aggressive if you put the ball in bad spots and you make bogeys. But the green complexes here are so severe. They're probably the second most severe we play all year compared to Augusta. That's where it's going to be won or lost this year is where you play around the greens. Hardest hole every year is 16, 17, 18, that stretch of holes. Those three holes always play the most difficult, I think, just coming down the stretch because so much can happen. 17 is a really tough par 4. Tough tee shot, tough second shot. And 18 is an iconic par 3, the way it is. Always a tough finish. It's tough coming down those few holes, it seems like. And the guys that play those holes the best can end up winning."
Henrik Stenson: "It's still kind of important to hit the fairways and you leave yourself the right path. It's crucial to be underneath the hole around here because even with a bit of rain and so on, you still get a lot of slick putts if you're above the hole. It's one of those courses, I think, if you're on the wrong hole, you're trying to attack too much, it can come back and bite you straight away. It's got some real long holes, some tough holes. The greens are really slick if you're coming down the hill. So it's key to keep the ball underneath the hole. So good approach play is going to pay off for sure. You know, I didn't grow up on Bermuda. So it might not be my best surface to pitch from and so on. So to hit a lot of greens is going to be crucial to do well. I don't think the scoring has been that low here in the past either. I think it's a golf course that kind of keeps the scoring pretty much under control."
Jim Furyk: "A lot of the defence of this golf course really is the Bermuda rough. You have to hit fairways. Some of them are very thin and very difficult to hit. 16 comes to mind. And then also I'd say the severity of the greens. They're very quick. And they have a lot of slope from back to front and I hit a lot of putts today where I had 20‑footers for birdie and really was putting extremely defensive because I was above the pin on the wrong side of the hole. And it's tough to stay patient. You got a short iron your hand, whip one in there 15, 18 feet behind the hole and you realize it's really not a great opportunity for birdie. And it's similar to the style of greens I grew up on, pitching very severe from back to front. But it's tough to make putts because you have a lot of putts that have a lot of break to them."
Chris Kirk: "I'd say this course and Boston are probably the most similar as far as it's a lot of drivers and it's a long golf course and not a whole lot of wedges in. So it's going to favour guys that are hitting their drivers real well and obviously putting well. These greens, like I said, are in perfect shape. They are very, very tricky to read with the grain, and the ball doesn't‑‑ generally goes with the grain, but not always. So it can be‑‑ despite how perfect they roll, they can be tough."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 4 Tour Championship winners:
Naturally a field of 30 players led by short-priced favourite Jason Day doesn't set the pulse racing when it comes to making a profit at the Tour Championship. The select field has led to typically reduced player prices and 4 places each-way in the main. Credit though to Sky Bet who are offering 5 places each-way which is something new for 2015 for this event.
Key Bookmaker Offer: Skybet are offering full 5 places each-way at East Lake across the short 30-man field - latest prices here: Skybet
Can anybody defeat the new World number 1, Jason Day? You have to say that he has timed his late season form to perfection with Jordan Spieth jaded after a magnificent early 2015 and Rory McIlroy struggling to find the putter after his injury rehabilitation. The result has been his first Major title and 4 tournament victories in his last 6 appearances. He thoroughly deserves his World Number 1 title and he is justifiably the short-price favourite this week on a course where he finished 4th last term - he had finished 4th at his previous Conway Farms appearance.
Playing devil's advocate it is possible to build a case against him this week, so here goes:
For the record here is the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
Fact is that the FedEx Cup itself has been won by the Tour Championship tournament winner here every time since 2010. Billy Horschel, Henrik Stenson and Brandt Snedeker were both in the Top 5 of the FEC standings across the last 3 renewals and Bill Haas and Jim Furyk were in positions 25 and 11 respectively in the 2 years prior to that. Make of that what you will. What's also clear is that those in the Top 5 of the FEC will be under intense scrutiny and pressure across the whole tournament week. It's telling that across 2011, 2012 and 2013 only a single player in the FEC Top 5 contended. However the pattern changed last term when Billy Horschel (FEC No 2) and Chris Kirk (FEC No 1) held off the World Number 1 and 4/1 shot Rory McIlroy.
My selections are as follows:
Now I'm a sucker for a pattern, but Rickie Fowler really does look like an East Lake Champion-in-waiting to me this week. A 2014 of Major consistency which ultimately culminated in disappointment could have broken the 26 year-old, but both Fowler and his mentor Butch Harmon are made of sterner stuff. Now I'm sure the timing of Sports Illustrated's infamous player poll which described Rickie as the joint-most overrated player in World Golf (with Ian Poulter) isn't entirely responsible, but Rickie went on to capture The Players Championship in May - not a bad 2nd PGA Tour career title and as we all know the Florida resident has gone on to win the Scottish Open and the Deutsche 3 weeks ago. A 'chilled' 4th last week at Conway Farms kept the momentum going nicely with Rickie 3rd in the FEC standings and with his destiny in his own hands.
Rickie's game stack up well for East Lake. A strong wind-player who thrives on classical/technical tests, his main Tour career wins have come at -14, -12 and -12 which is perfect for this week. He plays well in his residing state of Florida, highlighting that he players Bermudagrass well, and he thrives on MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens. 2nd (2012) and 1st this year at TPC Sawgrass signifies a player who can putt on MiniVerde as does Top 10 finishes at TPC Louisiana + GC of Houston which both feature Miniverde in their green mix. Rickie's ball-striking is excellent right now and it's worth remembering that he went out in the second-last group here 12 months ago after a 69-68-67 performance. Energised and focussed, Fowler can undoubtedly challenge this week.
I'm also covering off 2013 East Lake Champion Henrik Stenson who, like Fowler, may have disappointed in the Majors this term but arrives in Atlanta energised and in the FEC Top 5. The World Number 6 loves Bermudagrass with main Tour victories across Qatar (2006), Dubai (2007), TPC Sawgrass (2009), East Lake (2013) and the Earth Course (2013 and 2014) making up 60% of his career stroke-play titles. Both wins at TPC Sawgrass and East Lake were of course on MiniVerde and a pair of Top-3 finishes at GC of Houston are also noteworthy with MiniVerde in the green grass mix. Dubbed as 'Mr September' by the US golf media, Henrik clearly found his short game at Plainfield after months of top-level ball-striking and with the FEC as a focus-point, 2nd at Plainfield, 2nd at TPC Boston and a 'coasting' 10th at Conway Farms sees the Lake Nona, Florida-based Swede holding a golden key to the FEC for the second time in 2 years at East Lake this week. It's worth noting that Stenson, as well as Bae, Berger and English, were the 4 players who started the PlayOffs outside of the Top 30.
Almost as impressive is his Donald Ross course record: 4th at Oakland Hills (2007), 3rd at Oak Hill (2013), 4th at Pinehurst Number 2 (2014) and 2nd at Plainfield could be viewed as 'close but no cigar' until of course you throw in his victory here 24 months ago. Henrik, on top of the Tour Championship, has also won the European Tour season-finale at the Earth Course for the past 2 seasons and he's a must-back win only this week on a course where long accurate approach play pays off in spades.
The enigma that is Patrick Reed arrives in East Lake for his second appearance at the Tour Championship in 10th spot in the FEC, so any contending finish this week will see the confident Texan lined up for a huge bonus. They say that money doesn't drive the top players, and that may be true to a degree, so with a President's Cup appearance around the corner I think Reed, who was a star at the Ryder Cup last year, will be looking to boost his confidence further after 4th at TPC Boston and 28th last week at Conway Farms. A technical course specialist, Reed at 40/1 with 5 places being paid for Sky Bet makes plenty of sense this week, especially when you realise just how Bermudagrass positive the 25 year-old Texan is. 4 PGA Tour wins in the past 25 months have all come on Bermudagrass putting surfaces across Sedgefield (2013), PGA West (2014), Doral (2014) and Kapalua (2015). Sedgefield is a Donald Ross design and 3 of his 4 Top-7 results in 2015 have been on Bermudagrass putting surfaces at Kapalua, plus tough tests at PGA National and Copperhead.
With firmer conditions and higher scoring a reality this week, it's noticeable that Reed finished 15th at Akron in August and 4th at TPC Boston 3 weeks ago - the only recent tournaments played in firm conditions. So last week's performance which saw Reed hit far more fairways and greens than is the norm has meant I've pressed the button this week. With a razor-sharp short game, Reed could well be a surprise factor in Atlanta.
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