It is with a sense of overwhelming sadness that I write an introduction to a column previewing the final PGA Tour event of the 2016-17 season. As Jon Snow and every other character on Game of Thrones has warned, “winter is coming.”
That said, there’s no room for doom and gloom until late Sunday night when the devastating reality that real, meaningful golf with full fields of the world’s best players is more than a month away — unless, of course, you get up early and watch the European Tour. The TOUR Championship presented by Coca-Cola kicks off Thursday with the final 30 remaining players vying for the right to put their name on the $10 million cardboard check.
The FedExCup Playoffs have, once again, provided plenty of drama and this week in Atlanta only promises more of that. With the top-5 in Points controlling their own destiny, it’s not quite anybody’s game, but there’s no real, clear cut favorite.
With that in mind, here are five guys — not necessarily the top-5 — who have the best odds of doing something special at East Lake — and five who are just happy to have made it to the season’s conclusion:
Jordan Spieth — There are two parts of my brain going at it right now — the part that knows Jordan Spieth is going to meticulously shred East Lake this week and run away and hide by Saturday night, showing up on Sunday only to take a victory lap and bathe in the praise of golf experts everywhere and the reticent approval of Johnny Miller before cashing his $10 million check. And the part that really wants to see a dog fight between Spieth, Thomas, Leishman and Johnson. If my prose is any indication, you can figure out which way I’m leaning.
Marc Leishman — All that gushing about Jordan Spieth aside, don’t you dare sleep on Marc Leishman this week. If you’re an avid fantasy golfer, then you’re already familiar. If you’re a DFS player filling out a lineup on a whim, get familiar. Leishman has a better pedigree than most who have ever teed it up and has the performances in majors to prove it. While he has yet to breakthrough and win a major, or PLAYERS or anything like that, he did lead from flag-to-flag last week at the BMW Championship and is looking to be as good as anyone else who has hoisted a big trophy or donned an ugly-colored jacket. Still don’t think it could happen? Two words: Billy. Horschel.
Justin Thomas — Justin Thomas has all but solidified his title as PGA Tour Player of the Year, but he’ll try and pad his resume this week in Atlanta by adding a FedExCup title to his already unbelievable tally this season. While many expect their money to be made on Spieth or Thomas this week, the real money is probably on a prop bet of how many times they show that picture of the two as junior golfers eating hot dogs or mention them being best friends. What ever the line is, bet your house, your children, organs you have multiples of — whatever — on the over.
Dustin Johnson — Hard to believe the lack of attention that Dustin Johnson is getting this week. It always seems that by the time the TOUR Championship actually rolls around, people forget who won the first round of the playoffs. Sure, Spieth, Thomas and Leishman are the popular picks, but no one should count out Johnson. I’m not saying they are, I’m just saying he should probably be at the top of whatever list you’re making instead of fourth or fifth on it.
Charley Hoffman — Here I am, clinging to the hope that someone can throw a legitimate Hail Mary and knock off the big guns this week in East Lake, picking Charley Hoffman to make some noise. I know, it’s ridiculous — but wouldn’t it be awesome to see Hoffman cash a $10 million check? I want to live in that world… For my money, Hoffman has as good a chance as any to surprise at East Lake, despite a limited track record in the event. I wouldn’t go betting the farm or drafting him high, but Hoffman should be on your radar. In a field of 30 players, how bad can his week be?
Jason Dufner — As much as I (you, we, they, everyone) love Jason Dufner, there’s no reason to suspect he can take the momentum earned last week at the BMW Championship into East Lake and the TOUR Championship. Dufner is a major champion who knows how to close, but I don’t think that’s going to matter this week. There are just too many players ahead of him in the standings to make any real noise. For Duf Daddy, who began the year sluggish at best, this trip to East Lake is already icing on the cake for a down year.
Patrick Cantlay — I’ve wanted nothing more than a Patrick Cantlay win this season. Sadly, I don’t think that’s going to happen. That said, it has less to do with Cantlay than it does all the other talent in town this week. Cantlay obviously has the game and a win, no doubt, would be anything but a surprise — there’s just a lot of traffic ahead of him with more to lose than the rookie has this week at thr TOUR Championship. Because of that, I’m shying away despite the fact that my gut says give him the start.
Pat Perez — Wait, really? Pat Perez is in the final 30 in FedExCup Points and headed to Atlanta? Sweet. Love him or hate him, Pat Perez has always had the game if not the necessarily the head to match it. A journeyman pro who has found his way to the winner circle twice — including last year’s Mayakoba Classic. Perez enjoyed, arguably, his best professional season this year at age 41, making it to Atlanta for the first time in the FedExCup era and playing in all four majors in the same year for the first time in his career. Perez won’t really have a shot at claiming the $10 million top prize, but he shouldn’t be counted out from a fantasy standpoint this week.
John Rahm — Once the biggest, most promising story of the PGA Tour season, super rookie John Rahm is still quite the headline-maker. Rahm, who has cooled considerably since his scorching hot start to the campaign, is still, steadily, playing great golf. He may be flying a touch under the radar with the incredible play coming from the likes of JT and Jordan Spieth, but Rahm still did enough to control his own destiny this week in Atlanta. That said, this very much has a, “has to lose one before he can win one” type weeks for Rahm. The Spaniard will no doubt win many tournaments, a major at least, and find himself in the top-5 in FedExCup Points again before it’s all said and done — and in each triumphant moment will be able to draw on the lessons learned in defeat this week.
Rickie Fowler — I know I sound like a broken record and a bit of a dick, but don’t waste your money on Rickie Fowler this week. Again, this isn’t to say I have anything against Fowler — he’s great for the game and a great player — but he hasn’t proven he can get it done on this type of stage consistently. My opinion on this may have been a little different if he controlled his own destiny at East Lake, but even with a victory, Fowler would need some help cashing the big check. Up against guys as hot as Spieth, DJ and Justin Thomas, my passing on the orange one may be more to do with circumstances than pedigree or track record.