Tour Championship: PGA Tour season finale is ‘fascinating but contrived’

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Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas now leads the FedExCup standings after his victory at Medinah

It is easy to scoff at the new format introduced to determine the destiny of the $15m PGA Tour play-off jackpot.

Following Sunday’s BMW Championship victory at Medinah, Justin Thomas will start the season-ending Tour Championship at 10 under par, two strokes clear of Patrick Cantlay.

The scoring is pure artifice. It merely reflects form over the two play-off tournaments leading into this week’s gathering in Atlanta, where the top 30 finishers on the PGA Tour compete against each other on an uneven playing field.

Thomas gets his head start despite a season he would, no doubt, be happy to swap with world number one Brooks Koepka, who won the PGA Championship and was runner-up in the Masters and US Open.

It is fair to conclude, the climax to the American golf season does not reflect performances in the tournaments that matter most. Koepka is third in the standings and has a starting score this week of seven under.

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Rory McIlroy, the Players champion, Canadian Open winner and who recorded no fewer than 13 top-10 finishes this season, is only fifth in the standings. He starts at five under so five shots adrift of Thomas.

This is the first time the winner of the season-ending Tour Championship is the guaranteed winner of the Fed-Ex Cup spoils. Last year Tiger Woods won the tournament while Justin Rose did enough to claim the play-off crown.

That is how it was for the previous 11 season finales, but it has been deemed a confusing scenario. This new format is supposed to provide a simpler narrative.

It is, of course, too contrived for golfing purists to accept because it is quite possible for the title to go to someone who does not card the lowest score of the week.

Pop star Niall Horan is helping set up a World Invitational tournament for men and women

But like it or not, this is show business. Deep sponsor pockets demand a return and if that means playing with the numbers to attract bigger audiences that is what they will do.

It might not sit easily with traditional golf fans but at least this new format divorces itself from the majors, the true test of golfing excellence. We are left, though, with what should be an entertaining climax to the US season and that is important.

But more significant is that The Open, US Open, Masters and PGA remain the true barometers, free from mathematical formula other than simply adding up scores. The lowest total wins, simple.

This week’s Tour Championship cannot be an accurate reflection of the golfing year when Open winner Shane Lowry, the most dominant player at any of the year’s majors, fails to make the field.

So the event at East Lake should be treated for what it is worth, a fascinating but contrived competition with massive money at stake. That’s about it.

A more worthwhile and significant format change was used last week at a far less lucrative tournament – the men’s and women’s World Invitational in Northern Ireland.

Promoted and hosted by Niall Horan’s Modest! Golf outfit this was a modern take on tournament action with the men of Europe’s Challenge Tour sharing alternate tee times with leading European women in separate tournaments.

“We had a great week and I think we sent a message to world golf,” tournament director Mark McDonnell told BBC Sport.

“We’ve had incoming messages from America, messages from Australia and we had over 50 different nationalities playing, all of whom have said they’ve had a fantastic week.”

And through Horan, golf has the ideal vehicle to sell the sport to a largely untapped younger market. “With the voices we were able to have promoting this event, you know Niall has a 60m reach on social media,” McDonnell added.

“If 1% of those listen to his voice that’s 600,000 right there.”

‘Golf is for everyone’

The women’s event was won by local star Stephanie Meadow who held off Charley Hull, while Jack Senior claimed a play-off triumph over fellow Englishman Matthew Baldwin.

But the true significance and potential for the future was the decision to allow male and female golfers to share the same stage. McDonnell insists there should be nothing for golfing traditionalists to fear in this.

“If we were pitching to change the format of every event, every week and to play around with the Open and the Masters, that would be a different story,” he said.

“But no one is. What we are saying is there should be more opportunities for males and females to play together, golf is for everyone at the end of the day.”

And crucially McDonnell added: “This wasn’t a gimmick, these were normal stroke play events just as the traditionalists like.”

This week, the PGA Tour cannot say the same.

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