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Tour Championship ends in a split decision

That’s the trouble with kids and sports today. Everyone wins a trophy when it’s all over. How will these snowflakes ever learn life’s hard lessons that way?

There was Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele – one a PGA Tour wunderkind, the other a rookie and human word scramble – both loaded down with cash and fabulous prizes at the close of the Tour Championship Sunday. Both big winners, their self-esteem nurtured and their parents all quite pleased.

Everybody happy?

Certainly. How couldn’t they be?

The FedEx Cup had itself the most appropriate winner – a season-long award going to the season-long’s best player, Thomas. He was the one coming to East Lake with five tournament wins this season, including a major and one in the final four playoff events. That added up to more than Jordan Spieth, the guy Thomas leap-frogged Sunday in FedEx Cup points, could claim. The $10 million FedEx award was rightfully Thomas’.

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And the Tour Championship – the actual tournament that bills itself as golf’s big finish – had itself a completely surprising, mostly unknown champion, Schauffele. A guy who could really use the $3.5 million in purse and bonus money coming his way. 

Justin Thomas discusses his second round at the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club Friday.

A little something for everyone, for there hardly could be two more different personal stories sharing one victory ceremony.

Thomas, 24, came to East Lake a member in good standing of the game’s next great generation. He came to East Lake second in FedEx Cup points, loaded down with expectation. He’s the kind of player who could shot a 66 Sunday and say in good conscience that he and his caddie “just kind of plodded our way around the course.”

Thomas finished 11 under for the Tour Championship, one shot back of a player who earlier this year missed six of eight cuts before winning the Greenbriar Classic. A player who needed a great sprint in the playoff event preceding the Tour Championship – playing his last six holes of the BMW Championship in 6 under – just to make the 30-man field at East Lake.

Schauffele, No. 26 in FedEx Cup points when the tournament began, is of the same age group as Thomas and Spieth and Jon Rahm and Daniel Berger – those who have been given the keys to golf’s future. But he never has felt like he belonged at the cool kid’s table. He is refreshingly open about this topic. 

“I feel like I’m always the one on the outside looking in,” Schauffele said. “It’s kind of weird to be in their company.” 

Thomas might well have continued the recent, easy-to-comprehend trend of players simultaneously winning the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup. For he was constant while others fell away one by one.

Spieth holed out for eagle from 93 yards on No. 11 and while winning the Tour Championship seemed far-fetched, he did cling to the FedEx Cup lead for a bit after that. But he was 1 over for his last four holes, and just had to settle for the $3 million that came with being second in points. Poor chap. 

Former Georgia player Kevin Kisner, two off the lead Saturday as he helicoptered off to Athens to see the Bulldogs play Mississippi State, lost altitude as the day wore on Sunday. Leading at the turn, he suffered back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 10 and 11, splashed one on the par 3 15th and finished tied for third. He also was tied for low Bulldog – Russell Henley, who went on no excursions Saturday night, closed with a 65 Sunday to go 10 under for the tournament. 

Third-round leader Paul Casey avoided winning his first event in the U.S. since 2009 by shooting a 3 over 73 in the final round. 

It was Thomas alone who would provide Schauffele with any kind of consistent closing heat. When Thomas couldn’t do anything with the par 5 18th and Schauffele’s two-foot birdie putt on No. 18 orbited the hole and then dropped, he had his one-stroke difference. 

By that time, the engraver already was finishing his etching on the FedEx Cup trophy. Thomas had lost the day but won the year.

To his credit, Thomas testified to the overwhelming weirdness of celebrating a victory after finishing second at a tournament. This was the first time since 2009 that there was a split decision, back when Phil Mickelson won the tournament and Tiger Woods won the overall FedEx Cup.

“Feels very weird,” he said.

“At first, I'm sure people were kind of shocked at my reactions or my tone. Because of my competitive nature, I was upset. I felt like I had a great chance to win this tournament and I didn't. I wanted to win six times this year (Woods in 2009 was the last to do that). 

“It's odd getting something so tremendous – one of my best achievements in my career – without winning a golf tournament.”

While it’s easier to explain the electoral college than the FedEx Cup points system, the outcome Sunday was about as fair as it could be under the circumstances.

Thomas had his great, gleaming silver cup, his name sharing space with some of the greats.

Schauffele had the new Tour Championship trophy, the silver replica of Bobby Jones’ famous putter, Calamity Jane. Bobby Jones is kind of a big deal around here.  

“You know, five months ago, two months ago, three hours ago, I wasn't really expecting a whole lot. And to be sitting here with this bad boy right here (Jones’ aforementioned short stick) is very special,” Schauffele said.

Even the last place finisher – Jhonattan Vegas – would take home $315,000 between tournament purse and FedEx Cup bonus money.

Nobody left without a nice token from their week at East Lake. If only life always offered so many soft landings.  

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