Sunday at the BMW Championship was the perfect warm-up for Justin Thomas and what faces him in the upcoming FedEx Cup finale at East Lake. A real test to see how well he plays with house money.
Just fine, so it seems. A position of privilege and advantage fits him nicely. He’s capable of front-running like Usain Bolt with a tailwind.
» More: Tour Championship field set
Thomas began the final round here at Medinah at a ridiculous 21 under, six shots ahead of his nearest peer. Shooting a 4-under 68 Sunday, he lost some ground to his hungry pursers, but never all of it. And thus he gained the ultimate advantage heading to Atlanta.
Thomas earned the top spot in the FedEx Cup points standing. That means next week at East Lake, because of the new staggered scoring system put in place for the big finish, he’ll start the tournament at 10-under, with a lead over the other 29 in the select field before the first shot is hit.
“I can certainly a thousand percent say I’ve never slept on a Wednesday lead,” Thomas joked. “I’m excited about that.”
“I love that golf course (East Lake), I just need to start driving it better to play it well. I know if I shoot a lower score than anybody over 72 holes, I’ll be fine,” he said.
He displaced Brooks Koepka at this summit. Koepka, T-25 at the BMW, slipped all the way to third in the FedEx standings and will begin the Tour Championship at 7-under. No. 2, who goes off at 8-under, is Patrick Cantlay (second at the BMW at 22 under, three back of Thomas). The starting number for players in the field gradually decreases — with the last five players in FedEx points launching at even par.
In other words, Thomas will be flying at the front first-class next Thursday.
A sloppy bogey on the par 5 10th hole Sunday cut his lead to its slimmest margin of the day, two strokes. He banked his second shot off a fence separating the course from a busy road, the ball alighting inconveniently beneath a tree. He had to flip over his iron and punch out his second lefthanded.
All that affected him so negatively that all he did was shoot 4 under over the last eight holes, making an exclamatory 14-footer for birdie on the final hole.
A former world No. 1, a winner of nine previous PGA Tour events including a major, Thomas picked up his first victory in more than a year.
“I tried to stay patient. I new it was coming, I just didn’t know when. Obviously I was hoping it would be sooner than later,” Thomas said.
The elements of ’roided-up equipment, this silly fitness fad among the players and a soggy, receptive course combined to turn stately old Medinah into a wounded elk among wolves. Seven players shot four rounds in the 60s here this week. The scoring average for the tournament was 69.93. The course record was rewritten almost daily. But it was Thomas, and his Saturday 61, that made the biggest impact in this smorgasbord of birdies.
Looking ahead to Atlanta, the East Lake absentees are notable.
It’s official, Tiger Woods will not return to the scene of his raucous 2018 Tour Championship victory. Inaccuracy with his irons was the final insult. He was just 1-for-4 in sand saves Sunday, 2-for-8 for the tournament, certainly a side-effect of recent inactivity. He shot his highest round of the week, a 72, Sunday, finishing 7 under and in 48th place. OK, move along, nothing to see here.
“Last year culminated in a pretty special moment for me and it would have been nice to go back (to East Lake), but I’ll be watching the guys on TV,” Woods said.
(Two of this season’s major winners — Woods and Shane Lowry — won’t be at the Tour Championship.)
Phil Mickelson has made it to the final stage of the FedEx Cup nine times in his career, but not this year. And not for fourth time in the last six years — well, he is 48 now, you know. As he Tweeted out Sunday morning, after being rousted from his hotel following a lightning strike that singed the place, that was “the only thing of mine on fire this week.” He shot 71 Sunday, finishing T-58 at the BMW and 47th in FedEx standings.
As in 2018, Jordan Spieth will again miss Atlanta, the uninspiring second act of his career continuing. Another winless season — his second straight since the 2017 British Open victory. Needing a top-6 finish here, he instead finished T-40th (shooting 70 Sunday).
For the first time in seven years Jason Day, a distant 50th in points, didn’t make the field.
Thomas managed to jump up 14 spots in the points this one week, second only to Hideki Matsuyama’s 18-place leap (his third-place finish at the BMW bolting him from 33rd to 15th). For Thomas, that amounted to a difference between starting next week at 10 under or 3 under.
At the other end of the top 30, consider the big moves this week by Lucas Glover (from 41st to 29th in points) and Jason Kokrak (from 32nd to 30th) to make the Tour Championship cut and acquire the playing privileges — including a Masters invitation — that come with it.
But right now in the golf bag of life, it’s Thomas who has the mink head covers.
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