Plenty of questions will be answered at East Lake Golf Club this week which again hosts the season-ending Tour Championship. The FedEx Cup Series culminates in Georgia with the top 30 in the standings arriving in Atlanta with a shot at the overall title. Since 2010 the winner of the Tour Championship has also scooped the overall FedEx prize and the $10 million which comes with it. Naturally the top 5 in the standings control their own destiny, knowing that a win this week guarantees the overall title. In a new twist this week, Davis Love III will also use this event as his final opportunity to decide exactly who will fill the final Team USA berth in his Ryder Cup team. World Number 7 Bubba Watson is the obvious selection, but the door is still ajar for players of the ilk of Daniel Berger, Justin Thomas, Ryan Moore or even Kevin Chappell.
Qualifying for the Tour Championship is always a massive deal for plenty of players who don't reside regularly in the OWGR top 50 with invites to next season's WGC-Mexico Championship, The Masters, US Open and Open Championships the reward. So congratulations to Roberto Castro, Jason Dufner, Si Woo Kim (Tour Championship debutant), Sean O'Hair and Jhonattan Vegas (Tour Championship debutant) for booking their tickets to the biggest tournaments in 2017. They are joined by Kevin Chappell, Emiliano Grillo, Russell Knox, William McGirt and Justin Thomas who despite currently residing in the OWGR top 50 are 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 2016 FedEx Cup Champion crown and the $10 million winner's bonus. I won't even start to run through the scoring model, but suffice it to say that the top 5 players in the FEC standings - namely Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, Jason Day and Paul Casey - 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, Paul Williams previews the Porsche European Open - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
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. This course tends to negate pure power and aggression, instead rewarding consistent ball-striking or excellent tactical play and putting from short-game experts comfortable on the putting surfaces. Driving accuracy around here actually means something with Bermudagrass rough that punishes on a set-up that features plenty of 450+ yard par 4s. The course is a traditional Par 70 layout with only 2 par-5s, one of which is 600 yards in length. 2016 sees 78 yards added to course yardage with new tees on both the 16th and 17th par-4s. In addition the sets of 9 holes have been reversed, with the round now finishing with the 600 yard par-5 rather than the traditional par-3 closer. Naturally organisers want the chance of a more exciting finish.
East Lake Golf Club, East Atlanta, Georgia: Designer: Donald Ross 1913 with Rees Jones re-design 2008; Course Type: Technical; Par: 70; Length: 7,385 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. 2015: 70.38 (+0.38), Difficulty Rank 17 of 52 courses.
Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for East Lake and how they compare to recent courses that we've seen on Tour:
Course Overview: East Lake is a long 7,385 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. Downhill putts are difficult to attack and players constantly talk about positioning approach shots below the pin. Plenty of green complexes are also long and thin, making finding the putting surfaces tricky. East Lake is a traditional golf course that up until now 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 8 winners have been in the top 7 for fairways hit, but high Greens in Regulation numbers are even more important as 3 of the last 6 winners topping the category on their way to victory. Comfortable Bermudagrass putters Jordan Spieth and Bill Haas were the outlying Greens in Regulation performers of recent winners finish 9th and 11th in that category respectively. Since the 2008 Rees Jones re-design, Henrik Stenson holds the tournament winning lowest total with -13/267 in an event that featured softened greens on the Sunday.
Winners: 2015: Jordan Spieth (-9); 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 Dustin Johnson (Predictor number 1), Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott, Jason Day and Russell Knox.
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 events. 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: 2015: Spieth 9/1; 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 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Atlanta is here. After what seems a season of interrupted play, conditions at East Lake couldn't be any better this week. Tranquil wind conditions and clear skies await the 30 players. Temperatures will reach up to 31 degrees Celsius over the weekend and there's no threat of thunderstorms or precipitation. 32mm of rain fell on Sunday, so expect soft fairway and receptive greens early on, with the course drying throughout.
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:
Jordan Spieth: "I like to come to a place that I look at as very similar to Augusta National. I think the layout, the feel, the slopes, it reminds me a lot of it. I said it from after the first time I played Augusta, and then came back here last year, said, wow, this actually is somewhat similar. Just by the look of it. Obviously the greens are different and the bunkers are a bit different, but it has a very similar look and layout in my mind. And I really like this place. I like this place. I played solid two years ago. I know how to attack this golf course. I've been here before and attacked it the right way. This Bermuda can get a hold of you, you got to play it the right way, you got to be very careful about where you're leaving the ball. And I believe on these greens, that I can get back to the way that I've been putting and that I believe that I should be able to putt because these are the type of greens I grew up on. So I feel very comfortable."
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 5 Tour Championship winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
The FedEx Cup itself has been won by the Tour Championship tournament winner here every time since 2010. Jordan Spieth, Billy Horschel, Henrik Stenson and Brandt Snedeker were all in the top 5 of the FEC standings across the last 4 renewals whilst Bill Haas and Jim Furyk were in positions 25 and 11 respectively in the 2 years prior to that. Some further interesting trends for the Tour Championship include:
For research purposes other Ross designs include:
Naturally a field of 30 players led by short-priced favourite Dustin Johnson doesn't set the pulse racing when it comes to making a huge 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 both Sky Bet and Stan James who are both offering standard 5 places each-way at 1/4 odds.
My selections are as follows:
Jordan Spieth could well end what, for him, has been a disappointing season by defending both his Tour Championship and FedEx Cup crowns. Wins at Kapalua and Colonial are a pretty meagre return for a player of the quality of the 23 year-old, but all could have been so different at Augusta until he reached Amen Corner on Sunday. That meltdown on his last visit to Georgia has definitely dealt a blow to Spieth's confidence throughout the summer, but during the PlayOffs there have been signs that the swagger is returning. 10th at Bethpage, 21st at TPC Boston and 9th last time out at Crooked Stick sees Spieth arrive at East Lake in 7th spot in the FEC standings.
We all know that Jordan has a wise head on old shoulders and asked after his final round at Crooked Stick about his feelings going into the Tour Championship, the Texan said, "My game is really close. Really close to that 20-under type play that those guys are doing out here. It feels like it's teetering on the edge, which if you said three weeks ago how do you want to feel, obviously I would have liked to have been in contention, have a chance to win or to win these three weeks. But this is second to that. 7th is a good position. It's just about as good as a top 5 in the FEC. So if I win, pending something unlucky, we still have a chance to win the FEC and get to the Ryder Cup off a victory and that's the plan."
It was interesting to note that Spieth's driving accuracy, which has been his nemesis across the summer, took a major step forward at Crooked Stick and his confidence with the short game is also returning. Sure signs that the World Number 4 is close to a win.
Spieth purrs about East Lake to the same extent that he adores both Augusta National and TPC Deere Run, so it won't surprise you to know that between the 3 courses he's won 4 titles and has 3 runner-up finishes already on the CV. As you can read in the player comments above, Jordan relates the East Lake challenge as being very close to Augusta so it makes perfect sense that he excels at both. 2nd here in 2013 as a Tour rookie on course debut was magnificent, as was his calculating win here 12 months ago. East Lake is a course where those who are strong course managers can ably compete, so I'm expecting Spieth - who's hungry for late season success - to go very close in his bid to become the first player to win back-to-back Tour Championships and FedEx Cups. As Jordan puts it, "It's a place we feel really comfortable at, getting second and first, so going into this year with confidence."
Russell Knox has had a magnificent 12 months and was very unlucky not to make Europe's Ryder Cup team. Undoubtedly Thomas Pieters will be more suited to the 7,600 yard Hazeltine challenge next week, meaning that disappointed Scotsman Knox can concentrate solely on his Tour Championship debut on a technical Bermudagrass greened Par 70 which is sure to suit. That disappointment hasn't let the Florida-based 31 year-old's chin drop as 15th at TPC Boston and 17th at Crooked Stick are a set of fantastic results at a pair of courses which are pure bomber's tracks. He enters East Lake as the highest ranked debutant at 8th in the FEC standings - a huge performance. Knox is a consistent sort who manages his way around a course. Hits fairways (8th in Accuracy), hits greens (6th in Greens in Regulation, 11th Proximity to Hole) and he has a strong scrambling game (20th Scrambling, 10th Scrambling from Rough) when he misses the putting surface. A modern-day Jim Furyk if you like who won here in 2010.
Knox became the first Scottish World Golf Championship winner last November when he won the HSBC Champions at a soft Sheshan International and 2016 has seen him reach the OWGR top 20 with a second win this season coming recently at TPC River Highlands. You can add to that 2nd place finishes at both El Camaleon and Harbour Town. 3 top-30 finishes across the US Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship this summer highlights a player who's now comfortable at the biggest tournaments and I also like his performances at tough Bermudagrass greened tracks such as PGA National, Harbour Town and TPC Southwind.
I'll stick with Daniel Berger who I selected at TPC Boston 2 tournaments ago and who I think will welcome a return to this week's southern-state Bermudagrass greens. A closing round -3/69 last time out at Crooked Stick qualified the Floridian for his second consecutive Tour Championship - no mean feat in your first 2 seasons on Tour - and I have always thought that the 23 year-old has plenty about him. 2nd at the BMW Championship last year has been followed in 2016 by 10th at Augusta on his debut and 9th at The Players Championship. His debut PGA Tour win came at TPC Southwind in June where he closed the tournament like a confident multiple winner. It's noteworthy that Southwind is the only other regular PGA Tour stop-off which shares the quirky Zoysiagrass fairways which feature at East Lake.
Daniel has always shown himself to be a lover of Bermudagrass - hardly surprising with the location of his upbringing - and strong results at PGA National (2nd), Copperhead (11th) GC of Houston (5th - greens feature MiniVerde Bermudagrass in their grass mix) and TPC Louisiana (6th - MiniVerde Bermudagrass) feed in well from a correlating course form perspective. 12th here last year, his closing remarks at Crooked Stick highlight that as far as Berger is concerned there is still unfinished business to play for at East Lake, "Yeah, I was looking at the FedEx Cup the entire week. And when you have all your buddies going and you just want to be right there and you want to have another chance to, obviously, win, and maybe get closer to the Ryder Cup. With a win there, you never know what would happen."
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