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Sepp Straka survives the bubble, advances to TOUR Championship

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Sepp Straka survives the bubble, advances to TOUR Championship

Jordan Spieth narrowly advances to East Lake; Sahith Theegala finishes No. 31

    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – Sepp Straka’s phone died as he moved through the Chicago O’Hare airport security line on Sunday evening.

    He had good reason. He had spent all afternoon refreshing the FedExCup projections, moving between the 30th and 32nd spots in the FedExCup standings at a manic pace.

    Straka learned the good news one minute before his phone died: he finished No. 30 on the FedExCup, 8 points ahead of Sahith Theegala. Straka will make his second straight appearance at the TOUR Championship, knowledge that allowed him a serene flight to Birmingham, Alabama (nonstop) for a night in his own bed before driving to Atlanta on Monday morning.

    As it turned out, Straka needed a final-round, 3-under 67 at the BMW Championship to advance to the TOUR Championship. He shot 4-under 66, on the strength of a front-nine 30, propelled by some remote work with coach John Tillery on Friday night and Saturday morning, which helped turn the tides after opening in 71-74 at Olympia Fields Country Club (North Course). It sparked a weekend rally to 71-66 and a spot at East Lake.

    “I guess I refreshed the app so many times, my battery drained,” quipped Straka on Sunday evening, after safely returning home to Birmingham. “It’s really hard to get to Atlanta (for the TOUR Championship) … I just think about Hideki (Matsuyama)’s run that he had of never missing the TOUR Championship until this year; that stat is unbelievable because it’s so hard to get to Atlanta. You’ve got to have a great year, and then you have to play well in the Playoffs come crunch time.”

    Sunday was crunch time for Straka, and the Austria native delivered to find the right side of the bubble.

    Straka earned the final spot in next week’s TOUR Championship field, where everybody has a chance at the FedExCup. The veteran Austrian will begin at even par, 10 strokes back of FedExCup leader Scottie Scheffler. It’s a tall task, but as they say, you can’t win if you don’t tee it up. Straka will make his straight TOUR Championship appearance (he finished seventh on the FedExCup in 2022), not far from where he spent high school in Valdosta, Georgia, after his family moved from Austria to the United States. It required perhaps more drama than he had bargained for – he entered the three-event FedExCup Playoffs at No. 15 on the FedExCup – but the destination is worth the journey.

    Sepp Straka sends tee shot to 10 feet to set up birdie at BMW Championship

    “I needed a lot of help this afternoon to get me there,” Straka said, “and any way you can get there, you’ve got to take it. I’m excited to be going.”

    Every bubble player in means a player out, and the flip side meant Theegala sighing as he sat on the back tailgate of his car, an hour-plus after Viktor Hovland had been crowned champion, decompressing with a crew including his caddie Carl Smith and longtime swing coach Rick Hunter.

    Family friends, even his eighth-grade P.E. teacher – those were among Theegala’s supporters this week in Chicagoland, as he chased his second straight TOUR Championship appearance; he finished 28th last year as a first-year TOUR member.

    Theegala was gracious with the fans that lingered along the rope line, smiling and signing for those assembled between the player parking lot and the departure gate. But he couldn’t shake the idea that an opportunity had been in his grasp.

    After three consecutive birdies late Sunday (Nos. 15-17), Theegala was projected inside the top-30 bubble. But his approach flew the green on the par-4 18th hole, and his 15-foot par attempt lipped out in almost taunting fashion. He made bogey, ultimately finishing 8 points shy of Straka. His TOUR Championship return will have to wait another year.

    Sahith Theegala sinks 17-footer for birdie at BMW Championship

    “I think he gave it all … he fought hard. Very proud,” said Theegala’s dad Murli after the final round at Olympia Fields. “It’s a grind … sometimes things don’t go your way, and he fought hard. It’s amazing, the motivation he showed, sometimes when you don’t have your best, but he grinds with every shot. When the tough gets tougher, he always gives his best shot out there.

    “Sometimes the entire season, one shot here and there … this tournament doesn’t determine the one shot. It could be throughout the year, he could have made maybe one or two birdies … a lip-out that could have gone in, and all of a sudden you’re in a better position.”

    What advice would Murli impart to his son after such a grueling week, even if the ultimate result would prove bittersweet?

    “Look at the whole year,” Murli said. “You did a great job; coming in the top 50 is a great achievement, nothing to be shy about it … it’s a marathon, you take it year-by-year, little achievements and you see where it gets you.”

    True sentiments, if difficult for those outside the top 30 to feel in the aftermath of Sunday’s competition.

    Just one player moved inside the top 30 this week: Matt Fitzpatrick (from 40th to 10th) with a runner-up finish at the BMW. That didn’t mean there was any lacking for drama.

    Emiliano Grillo, who began the week at No. 23 on the FedExCup, was projected outside the top 30 after beginning the week with rounds of 73-69-71. He figured that a 3-under final round would give him a strong chance for a trip to East Lake. After a final-round 67, he joked that he wished he would have set his goal at 4-under. But as it turned out, 67 was enough, with some breathing room.

    “I’ve got to work on my swing if I’m playing next week,” quipped Grillo, who finished T31 at the 50-player BMW, where he ranked 33rd in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green. “You want to play every tournament that you can, and Atlanta is one of them for sure.”

    Grillo will proceed to Atlanta, as will Jordan Spieth, who checks in at No. 29 on the FedExCup after a T34 finish at Olympia Fields. There wasn’t a dull moment in Spieth’s week; he was his usual animated self for the majority of 72 holes, chatting away with himself and caddie Michael Greller, including a vintage Spieth “Ohhh no!” after striking his approach shot at the par-4 fifth hole Sunday, which flew over the green en route to a bogey. He was projected outside the top 30 at times throughout the final nine, which included a double bogey at the par-4 10th, and a bogey-bogey finish made for a frustrating walk to the scoring tent. But as those around him on the bubble failed to make major moves, Spieth found the right side of the bubble and will make his third consecutive TOUR Championship appearance, after missing three in a row from 2018 to 2020.

    “Fifty-fifty, Michael, or what?” Spieth asked his caddie Michael Greller after signing his card, as Greller perused the projections on a TOUR laptop. Greller nodded.

    “You’re only in by one point right now,” Alter explained.

    Spieth finished with 12 points to spare; he could have afforded one more bogey and still advanced to East Lake. He just wasn’t sure at the time – he finished with approximately three hours remaining in competition. Too much was unknown.

    Jordan Spieth talks about FedExCup standings after BMW Championship

    Tyrrell Hatton secured the 28th spot, which he might have found hard to believe after signing for a final-round 71, which included a double bogey and two bogeys in the final four holes.

    “I don’t think I’ll be there,” quipped Hatton to PGA TOUR vice president of communications Tom Alter, as they met in the scoring area for Alter’s real-time briefing of scenarios. He’ll be there.

    Grillo, Hatton, Spieth and Straka were the beneficiaries of the bubble. But for every success story on the fine line, there’s a player who will depart Chicagoland thinking about what could have been.

    Tyrrell Hatton learns he is inside top 30 after final round at BMW Championship

    Aside from No. 31 Theegala, those to narrowly miss included No. 32 Chris Kirk, No. 33 Denny McCarthy and No. 34 Justin Rose.

    Kirk began the week at No. 29 on the FedExCup and was well positioned to advance to his second TOUR Championship (he finished second in 2014) after opening rounds of 66-66 at Olympia Fields. He was solo second into the weekend but fell back with rounds of 75-71, ultimately two strokes shy of a return to East Lake. He was the only player to fall from inside to outside the top-30 bubble this week.

    McCarthy entered the week at No. 33 on the FedExCup and was projected No. 30 into the final round, on the verge of his first trip to East Lake. He hovered around the top-30 number all Sunday, with a spirited gallery including his dad Dennis and brother Ryan – both who flew in for the occasion from the Washington, D.C. area.

    After Xander Schauffele made bogey at the 72nd hole, the stage was set for McCarthy: birdie at the 72nd hole for a trip to the TOUR Championship. His family was closely following, aware of the scenario. McCarthy split the fairway at the par-4 18th and had 177 yards to the hole, but his approach landed in a greenside bunker short and right, and he couldn’t hole the bunker birdie try. He settled for bogey and a No. 33 finish on the season-long standings, another near-miss in a season that included a runner-up at the Memorial Tournament presented by Workday.

    The silver lining: McCarthy has improved each of the last three years on the FedExCup standings, an upward trajectory that could suggest success in the coming years. And like all others who teed it up at Olympia Fields, he’ll be exempt into next year’s eight Signature Events, which feature elevated purses and point totals.

    It doesn’t negate the sting, of course. Advancing to East Lake is a common start-of-year goal for most touring pros, a sign of an elite-level season. Adam Schenk had a 99.9% chance of making the TOUR Championship into the week, per Data Golf, knowing he was in good shape but well aware that his work wasn’t done. He finished T34 for the week, not particularly satisfied with his performance, but pleased with his season-long body of work.

    “It’s a pretty amazing feeling,” said Schenk after earning his first TOUR Championship appearance. “Kind of can’t believe it happened … just grateful.”

    Grateful, an emotion certainly shared by Straka as he decompressed Sunday evening.

    Saturday’s third round saw a cavalcade of fans in “Sepptic tank” shirts, paying homage to Straka in appreciation for the two-time TOUR winner’s rising star in the game. Perhaps they’ll book some flights to Atlanta later this week.

    Straka, after all, will be there.

    “Just looking at the season as a whole, it was no doubt the best season I've had in professional golf,” Straka said after signing his card early Sunday afternoon. “I'm really happy with the season. Right now, a little bit upset with having to kind of watch people, see what happens.

    “I’ll be watching. I’ll definitely be watching.”

    He watched. He waited. Now he’s headed to East Lake.

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.

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