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BlogPrelude to the Tour Championship

Tour Championship

September 4th – 7th, 2020

East Lake G.C.

Atlanta, GA

Par: 70 / Yardage: 7,346

Purse: No Purse

Defending Champion:
Rory McIlroy

by Sal Johnson

Founder, Chief Data Officer, GOLFstats

E-mail me at:
sal@golfstats.com

Coming down the homestretch with the U.S. Open just two weeks away.

For fantasy golf players and betters, Olympia Field turned into one of those pleasant surprises. After 11 weeks of double-digit winning scores except for the Memorial in which Jon Rahm won at 9 under par, Rahm won again at Olympia Field at 4 under par. For the golfing world, Olympia Field turned out to be that blind date who turned out to be a goddess, a perfect ten. For decades the club yearned for a major championship, and when it got it in 2003 U.S. Open weather conditions created a course that embarrassed the USGA, thus the club going into limbo for 17 years. But with its newfound slot this year for the FedExCup playoffs, it was given a second shot at redemption and showed the golf world it’s true bite. Rahm’s 4-under performance, which saw his week start with a 75 and end with a 64, is the lowest winning score of any FedExCup playoff event. The 4-under winning score tied the low winning score of the season, which was at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last March. But even more impressive, in the previous 20 years, 4 under has been the winning score in six non-majors on the PGA Tour and only one off the low non-major winning score of 3 under by Keegan Bradley at the 2011 Byron Nelson. So what Olympia Fields did was given players not only an excellent test for the second leg of the playoffs but also a preview of what they will field in a couple of weeks at the U.S. Open. For the players, because of COVID-19 and the break it created, organizers were forced into a unique scheduling fluke in which the U.S. Open is played just a week after the 2019/20 season ends.
So we got a preview of who’s game will be in good shape to tackle Winged Foot, which will hold the U.S. Open this year. That classic course is considered one of the best, if not the most stringent tests any professional golfer will experience. So Olympia Fields provided that perfect preview in getting players ready. With Jon Rahm winning, it makes him not only one of the favorites of this week’s Tour Championship but also the U.S. Open. Rahm won six weeks ago at Muirfield Village, another challenging course typically played three weeks before the U.S. Open and acts as a preview. A significant aspect of Rahm’s win is how much he turned his tournament around. He opened up with a 75, which is a number you don’t win tournaments with. Showing that fact, since 1970 there have been 2,310 tournaments played on the PGA Tour. Five of those events were won by players who shot 76. Rahm joins a list of 15 winners that won after starting with a 75, so you can see that Rahm was in unchartered waters, especially when you considered that he shot a second-round 71 and was six over in the tournament, seven shots back of Rory McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay who led. Over the course of his final 34 holes, Rahm played them in ten under with eleven birdies and only one bogey, that coming early Saturday, which means Rahm was bogey-free his last 31 holes. Still, it took a little miracle for him to win. Tournament favorite Dustin Johnson made a miraculous birdie on his final hole on Sunday to force a playoff. On the first playoff hole, Rahm was faced with a challenging 66 footer for birdie in which just getting down in two was an accomplishment, but Rahm holed it, and it proved to be the winning putt. Now in this stat-fest era, Rahm’s putt may get lost in history as playoff stats aren’t part of a player’s regular stats. So historically, the putt will be lost when you consider the putt is the second-longest putt Rahm has made on the PGA Tour, the longest being a 68-foot, 9-inch bomb he made on the 16th hole in the third round of the RBC Canadian Open in which he finished T-2nd in.
But in looking at the results from the BMW Championship and how it pertains to the Tour Championship and the U.S. Open, the most prominent aspect is the drastic move Rahm makes up the FedExCup point list. He started the playoffs 10th and now is 2nd. When Rahm tees off on Friday, he will only be two shots back of leader Dustin Johnson. Without the comeback over the weekend, Rahm could have been six shots back of Johnson, who you don’t want to be behind. The most significant aspect of what Rahm has done since the break is work on the weakest part of his game. Going into Memorial, the worst part of Rahm’s game and one that came to light during the majors was his poor play from the rough. This season ranked 213th in Rough Proximity, and 64th in Strokes Gained Approach the Green going into Memorial. These stats show that Rahm has a weakness on shots from the rough. Since most major courses, especially Winged Foot, emphasize handling heavy rough, you can see the disadvantage Rahm has faced and one of the reasons he is never considered a favorite at a U.S. Open. At the BMW Championship, Rahm was T-13th in driving accuracy, which meant less play from the rough. So he was 10th in Rough Proximity, and 9th in Strokes Gained Approach the Green, which is the type of numbers needed to win a U.S. Open. These improvements will also help him play East Lake this week. The course demands good driving and also has rough, which makes the course hard to score on. So with this newfound improvement, we can see why Rahm not only won but how it will set him up for the Tour Championship and East Lake.

So enough of Rahm, yes, he has the hot hand going into this stage of the season. But others come out of Olympia Fields with a lot of momentum. We have seen the outstanding play of Dustin Johnson, who was T-2nd at the PGA Championship, a winner at the Northern Trust and 2nd at the BMW Championship. Still, the rap many will say on Johnson was that the BMW Championship just proved that Johnson needs to win by 11 as he did at the Northern Trust to have any chance of winning. In the wrong way, Johnson still shot 69-67 over the weekend, and it took a better performance from Rahm to beat him. Dustin is the modern-day Greg Norman, a great player in the 1980s and ’90s, but seemed to have someone always play a touch better. The same with Dustin, who had his 15th runner-up finish, which is the sixth most of players presently on the PGA Tour (Phil Mickelson has 37, Tiger Woods has 31 along with Jim Furyk, Charles Howell III has 16 along with Luke Donald). Still, we all know that Dustin will contend at East Lake as he goes into the Tour Championship at 10 under par and with a nice lead over the field. He has also learned how to play well at East Lake with five top-ten finishes in his last seven starts. Another person who could be a factor at East Lake will be Hideki Matsuyama, who finished 3rd at the BMW Championship. Matsuyama could be the best player on tour from tee-to-green. His game is reminiscent of Orville Moody, who won the 1969 U.S. Open but will always be remembered for his great tee to green game but one of the worst putters in golf at the time. For 2020 Matsuyama ranks 178th in Strokes Gained Putting, which is why he has struggled this year. The biggest problem he will have is placing 10th in the FedExCup, which means he will begin the Tour Championship at 4 under par, six back of Dustin Johnson, which is too many shots to make up. Also played well at Olympia Fields was Joaquin Niemann, Tony Finau, and Brendon Todd, but all of them will be too far back of Johnson to make anything happen. Now in third in the FedExCup standings and starting at 7 under, three back of Johnson is Justin Thomas, who was T-25th at the BMW Championship and since winning last month at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude has struggled with his game. He struggled some more at the BMW Championship, opening up with rounds of 73-74-71 before ending with a 68. He is only three back and has the game to overtake Johnson, but will have to find some magical upgrade on his game in the next five days. Webb Simpson will start at East Lake at 6 under and will be 4 back of Johnson. He decided it was better for him to take the week off and comes into the Tour Championship fresh, and with three top-five finishes at East Lake and the fact that he has played well since the break makes him one of those to watch. Collin Morikawa will start five back of Johnson on Friday and, despite struggling a bit since winning the PGA Championship, showed that his game was coming around as he shot 68-68 over the weekend to finish T-20th.
So it will be interesting to see what happens at East Lake, and the critical thing to look for is excellent play. If Dustin Johnson does what he has done the last four starts, he will be hard to beat. But at the same time, look at how the players do, remember this that the U.S. Open is just around the corner, and this week will give us another thing to think about at Winged Foot.
One last thing is Olympia Fields, which had the second-best week behind Jon Rahm winning. The course showed that it does deserve a U.S. Open or a PGA Championship. Hopefully, Olympia Fields could get the BMW Championship with those majors signed with majors for the foreseeable future in future years. It makes sense as it showed that it’s as good as Medinah and the players loved it, despite the challenging conditions. Nothing is set for the future other than next year’s BMW Championship goes to Caves Valley Golf Club outside of Baltimore. ┬áBut according to the Daily Herald’s Barry Rozner, the rumor floating around Olympia Fields was that the 2022 BMW Championship could return. ┬áThat would be great considering that Olympia Fields was cheated a bit this year in which COVID-19 didn’t allow the course to have people watching, something that the USGA and PGA of America would like to see if they were thinking of having a major on it.
One last thing to remember, because this is Labor Day weekend, the final round is played on Monday, not Sunday. So that gives you an extra day to think about who to pick as the first round is Friday, not Thursday.

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