The PGA Tour has been working on the format for the Tour Championship for years. It is difficult to incentivize players to ascend up the FedExCup standings all season and find a way to reward that success while also giving all 30 players in the field a shot at the top prize.
The current solution is a staggered start at the beginning of the event leading to an $18 million first prize. Scottie Scheffler tops the points list and will begin the Tour Championship, the finale of the FedEx Cup playoffs, at 10-under par. He will enter Round 1 at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta with a two-shot lead over Patrick Cantlay, who is second on the points list and will begin at 8-under par.
Will Zalatoris, third on the points list, would have started at 7-under but withdrew again this week. Zalatoris reportedly has two herniated discs in his back and will miss the Presidents Cup in a few weeks as well.
Xander Schauffele begins at 6-under, Sam Burns at 5-under and the next five players in the FedExCup standings, including Rory McIlroy, at 4-under. The staggered strokes system continues for each of the now 29 players in the field, with the lowest five players in the standings beginning the week at even par.
The staggered start makes the Tour Championship a challenging event to bet. Some books offer markets in which the starting strokes are removed and you are betting into a traditional start, where everyone begins at even par. Two seasons ago, Xander Schauffele shot the lowest score over the four days but Dustin Johnson won the tournament because of his starting strokes advantage.
Beginning with a two-stroke lead, Scottie Scheffler is a short favorite at around 2-1 odds. In the market with the pre-assigned starting score eliminated, Rory McIlroy is the favorite at around 6-1 and Scheffler is fourth or fifth on the board at around 13-1.
McIlroy has won at East Lake twice before. The course requires length and accuracy off of the tee, or Total Driving, an area of the game in which not many are better than McIlroy. Total Driving and Greens in Regulation have been two of the most common statistics among the winners at East Lake.
East Lake is a Par 70, Donald Ross design, measuring over 7,300 yards. As is true with many Ross designs, the greens have shaved runoff areas surrounding the putting surfaces. When greens are missed, a deft scrambling touch will be needed. As is the case with so many Par 70s, I looked at Strokes Gained: Par 4s because 12 of the 18 holes fit the bill. It’s also worth noting that we move from Bentgrass greens at Wilmington Country Club to Bermuda greens at East Lake.
With only 29 players in the field, the betting options shrink. Here are the full tournament head-to-head matchups I considered and those that I played this week:
Considered (36-35-3 YTD)
— J.T. Poston (+ 115) over K.H. Lee
— Aaron Wise (-145) over Adam Scott
Played (34-27-2 YTD)
Rory McIlroy (-130) over Jon Rahm
McIlory and Rahm are two of the best drivers in the world, but while Rahm has played pretty well the last two weeks, he has been off overall for most of the season. McIlroy, on the other hand, I believe is the best player in the world right now. His track record at East Lake is remarkable. I mentioned earlier he's won here twice. He also has four additional top-10 finishes, including a runner-up in 2014. Rahm has taken second and fourth the last two seasons, when he was arguably the best player in the world, but hasn't fared too well here otherwise. My numbers between the two players are close but Rory has the edge, especially on Approach, Par 4s and Proximity from 200+ Yards, a distance players will face at East Lake more than normal — likely more than 30% of the time. Finally, Rory begins the event one stroke ahead of Rahm (4-under versus 3-under).
Matt Fitzpatrick (+ 115) over Justin Thomas
Thomas has been off the boil for a couple of months. He was 37th at the U.S. Open, missed the cut at the Scottish Open, 53rd at the Open Championship and 52nd last week in a field of 68 at the BMW Championship. Since winning the U.S. Open, Fitzpatrick has finished 6th, 21st and 5th two weeks ago in Memphis. He was 48th last week in Wilmington but gained strokes on approach, around the greens and with the putter. My numbers are fairly close between these two but Fitzpatrick is far better in my areas of emphasis over his last 24 rounds (Strokes Gained: Par 4s, Scrambling, Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and Greens in Regulation Gained). Both players will start at 3-under par. I think you can make a case that the Englishman should be favored in this matchup, so I will gladly take the plus price.
Don't miss “LongShots” this week for all of the plays from myself, Wes Reynolds and our special guest, Mackenzie Kraemer of ESPN's “Daily Wager” show. You can find it at VSiN.com/podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.