Justin Thomas, after winning the BMW Championship, has the bearing of a man given a nice head start on his next event. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/TNS
Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/TNS

The great unknown: How will new Tour Championship scoring play out? 

Justin Thomas needs to get a few strokes from the field like Brad Pitt needs another dimple. 

You don’t let the chip leader see your hole cards. You don’t give Mark Zuckerberg a handout. And you sure don’t give strokes to a guy who just a few days ago at the BMW Championship shot 61. That’s just madness.

Like, when was this 10-time PGA Tour winner – one major thrown into the mix –  ever spotted a couple strokes before a round? Had Thomas even lost his baby teeth by then?

“I couldn’t tell you,” he said.   

Yet here we are, three days before the start of the Tour Championship, and Thomas is already 10 under. He woke up this morning with a two-stroke lead before his courtesy car ever touched East Lake pavement, the high handicap guy in one particularly well-paying member-guest event at Bobby Jones’ old club. 

His reaction:

Thank you very much.

“I know I’m in a lot better position (starting at 10 under) than I was at the start of the week. I just have to be grateful and thankful for that,” said Thomas, who before winning the BMW Championship Sunday was looking at starting seven shots lower.

Feeling it needed to make its season-ending event more of a golf problem and less of a math problem, the PGA Tour performed some radical plastic surgery on the Tour Championship format. Rather than carry its points system all the way through the final event, the PGA Tour instead used those points to establish a staggered start to the Tour Championship.

First in points (Thomas) will start at East Lake 10 under. Second (Patrick Cantlay) in points starts 8 under. Third (Brooks Koepka) at 7 under. And so on, the advantage gradually diminishing until reaching the last five in the 30-man field, who will start at even par. 

No more cutting away to the analyst standing in front of a big screen trying to explain how that last missed putt just moved Player X down a spot in the points. 

No more split personality Sundays, as last year when Tiger Woods won the Tour Championship and Justin Rose won the FedEx Cup. The Tour Championship as a separate tournament essentially no longer exists – this is all about the FedEx Cup finale. And whoever finishes atop the scoreboard next Sunday – even if he didn’t shoot the lowest score of the week, a distinct possibility – is the one and only champion receiving the one and only trophy.

“It’s a way easier story to tell this year,” said Paul Azinger, who will be telling the story on NBC.

“It’s the right way to do it because you’re going to know how everybody stands. You’re going to know the value of every shot down the stretch on Sunday,” he said.

Fans just will have to pretend that the leaderboard has been hacked before the start of the tournament – blame the Russians, if you wish – and then proceed normally as with any other tournament. Everyone’s just chasing the guy at the top, business as usual.

“I think (the new format) is a good thing,” said Matt Kuchar, starting at 4 under this week. “I think it’s going to be well-received. After we get started Thursday I think people forget about how everybody started.”

According to the PGA Tour, every winner of the FedEx Cup from 2009 onward would have been the same under the new format, with only one exception (Luke Donald would have won in 2011 instead of Bill Haas). Only with a lot less confusion.

Now if a guy has one putt for $15 million, he’s going to know it. The nerves can’t hide in the dense forest of the old points system.

There is a great deal of wondering over how the staggered scoring ultimately will affect the competition. This is all new territory they trod at East Lake this week.

The guy at 10 under isn’t certain how to feel.

“There’s nobody in the history of this sport that has experienced it, so nobody knows,” Thomas said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be weird. It is going to be different.”

Just how much of an advantage might a couple-stroke head start be over the course of a full tournament?   

“Obviously, 72 holes is a lot of golf to play and things can happen,” Rory McIlroy said. “But I think it all evens out over the course of the week, and to spot guys of that caliber a few shots at the start of the week is pretty tough.”
Worst-case scenario, as supplied by Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel: “You know, there’s potential for huge blowouts in this. Applying this format to what’s transpired in the past, Tiger would have won by 15 shots in 2007. Stenson would have won by seven in 2013. There’s potential for a huge blowout where Sunday could be a bit of a snooze-fest.”

If Mr. 61 does that again at East Lake, that could happen this very year.

Some, however, would like to believe the new format gives players in the lower reaches of the points standing a better chance at contending for the really big money. 

Paul Casey, who will start at 2 under, told the Golf Channel, “With our system, I think there’s more volatility this year. I know the mathematicians say that’s not the case, but I think they have no idea about what’s going to happen at East Lake.”

“We’ll probably have a year where the guy who starts 10 under does run away with it,” said Kuchar. “But you’re going to have years where the guy who starts at 10 under finishes in 15th place.”

We’re all learning this system, players and fans. It is a voyage of discovery, the only certainty being that the rich will get considerably richer by Sunday.

McIlroy is spotting Thomas five strokes this week. He says he’ll attempt to not look at the leaderboards at least until the weekend. He’ll try to fool himself into believing everyone’s starting at even par, “and try to shoot four good scores and see where that leads me.”  

Thomas is withholding final judgment on the format for a few days. “If I’m holding the trophy at the end of the week, I love it,” he said. “It’s going to be different. I think it has the potential to be an extremely intense leaderboard come Sunday, but with the separation you have, who knows?”

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