Rory McIlroy has never won the Tour Championship or the $10 million dollar bonus for winning the FedEx Cup. He can add both achievements to his career resume at East Lake Country Club in Atlanta this week. He is one of five players who have destiny in their own hands as winning the former would confirm the latter and a huge increase to their bank balance in the process.
Chris Kirk, Billy Horschel, Bubba Watson and Hunter Mahan are the other players in the mix to win the FedEx millions. McIlroy is by far the highest world ranked player in that quintet and he knows he is the best player in the group. The others will be mindful of the appearance of the best player in the world on the leader board on Sunday afternoon.
The Tour Championship is the mega-rich, end of season tournament restricted to the top30 players on the Money List. Actually there are only 29 golfers playing this week as the qualifier in 30th place, Dustin Johnson, is absent to sort out some personal issues. There is no cut and all players are guaranteed a very large cheque.
From 1998 East Lake hosted the event in even years but since 2004 it has been the permanent home so this is the 14th renewal at the course. There are just two par 5s, the 9th and 15th which is the easiest hole on the course. The par 3s are the 2nd, 6th and the two toughest short holes, the 11th and 18th.
Accuracy rather than power is the requirement here on an old-style links course. It pays to get the ball on the fairway to enable approach shots to be played under control to below the hole, as most of the tricky bentgarss greens slope from back to front. Putting is obviously important but the key, however, is finding the greens.
If the champion at East Lake is one of the top five in the standings he will win the FedEx Cup as well. That will mean total prize money of $11.44 million, the most of which is the bonus. Money for some is not an issue but more rewarding for the 29 players at East Lake is that they are exempt from the first three majors of next year.
East Lake was the second easiest par 70 course on the PGA Tour last season. It was also the lowest scoring average since bent grass greens were introduced in 2008. Greens average 6,200 square feet and are expected to be fast. Two nines of par 35 make up the course which at 7,307 yards is just about average in length. There is a threat of poor weather which could affect the scoring but generally it will be hot and humid but there could be some light winds on Sunday.
The FedEx Cup concept was introduced in 2007 and of the seven winners five have been American. Tiger Woods is the only multiple champion and the overseas winners have been Henrik Stenson and Vijay Singh. Woods has won most money in the FedEx Cup and is the only player to have won three post season tournaments. Of the 31 playoff events staged to date there have been 21 winners from the United States.
The last four winners of the Tour Championship have also won the FedEx Cup and one of the two other winners have won both events. It’s not a prerequisite for winning the FedEx Cup to also win the Tour Championship but it certainly helps. In 2012 Brandt Snedeker famously pocketed over 11 million dollars by doing just that but said he wouldn’t buy a new car as he had a perfectly suitable vehicle in his garage that was about five years old.
McIlroy is by some distance the best player in the world, both statistically according to the world rankings and visually by his style of play. He is one of the few players who combines driving accuracy and distance. However, he excels more on courses that are above average in length, though Hoylake wasn’t over long when he won the Open Championship there in July.
The world number one is now three quarters of the way to a career Grand Slam. When he wins the US Masters he will complete the set and join an elite group of just five players who have won each of the majors at least once. He is the only European to have won three different majors as even Sir Nick Faldo and Severiano Ballesteros only won the Open and Masters. If he wins the Green Jacket next April he will be the third youngest player in the history of the game to win all four majors with only Jack Nicklaus and Woods younger when they won their fourth different one.
In the context of the Tour Championship McIlroy has a poor record for a player of his ability. He tied 10th in his only other appearance at East Lake in 2012. It was difficult what to make of his efforts last week in the BMW Championship. Despite two four-putts a tied 8th was his 11th top ten of a season in which he won two majors and a World Golf Championship event in addition to the PGA Championship, the flagship event of the European Tour.
Of the other four players that can win both regardless of how other players perform Watson is the only other major champion. He and McIlroy are the only players in the top 5 five in the standings without winning a 2014 play-off event. Mahan, Kirk and Horschel have won the three playoff events to date. A number of players can come from well of the pace but history suggests the winner of the Tour Championship will probably also win the FedEx Cup. On current form nobody can touch McIlroy and at his best he can win any tournament he enters. It would be a fitting climax to a great season and a good precursor to the Ryder Cup if McIlroy left East Lake more 11 million dollars richer.