New format is the new normal after first round at East Lake
August 22, 2019
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Koepka, Thomas, Schauffele tied for lead at TOUR Championship
ATLANTA – Paul Casey rarely looks at leaderboards while playing the front nine on a Thursday. After all, what’s the point with so little movement that early in the tournament?
But five holes into the first round of the TOUR Championship, Casey took a peek. This week’s new Starting Strokes format had him intrigued.
“For once, first time ever,” Casey said, “[it was] anticipation to see scores.”
Casey was one of five players who started the day at 2 under, eight strokes off the lead held by FedExCup points leader Justin Thomas. After shooting a 4-under 66, he’s now at 6 under – four shots behind co-leaders Thomas, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka – and has a realistic shot at winning the FedExCup at East Lake.
In the previous format, Casey would have started the week needing a handful of scenarios to play out in his favor. In fact, a year ago, Casey arrived at East Lake ranked 26th in points. Not only did he need to win the tournament, he also needed seven different players to fall in line before he could claim the FedExCup.
He entered this week ranked 16th in points. Sure, he started eight shots behind, but if he can make up the ground and beat everybody else at East Lake, the FedExCup will be his. No other scenarios need to play out. If he wins the tournament, he wins golf’s biggest prize. Pretty simple.
“I guess it was a little bit strange,” said Casey when asked about teeing off eight shots behind. “It was nice once everybody was on the golf course.”
Unlike previous TOUR Championships in the FedExCup era, there’s only one leaderboard needed this week. Once the leaderboard started to fill up Thursday, and players knew exactly where they stood, it seemed, well, a bit normal.
“It didn’t feel that much different, to be honest with you,” said 2016 FedExCup champ Rory McIlroy, who started five shots behind Thomas but shot a 66 and is now just a stroke off the lead. “… I sort of had the mindset this week that I’m starting on even par, and I’m going to try to shoot a good four-round total and see where that leaves me at the end of the week.”
Said Koepka: “You could say I played it like a five-day event. I knew I was three down and … by the time the turn comes, try to get back to all square.”
Unlike previous TOUR Championships -- in which each of the top five players in points controlled his own destiny by claiming the FedExCup title with a win – the only player wearing a target this week was Thomas.
Entering with a staggered lead over the other 29 players in the field, Thomas – who won the FedExCup in 2017 by finishing solo second to Schauffele in the TOUR Championship – was the focal point. A hot start could have deflated the field. “If he came out with five straight birdies, it would be like, OK, we’re done,” Casey said.
Instead, with Thomas shooting even par, the field is now bunched. Five players started the tournament within five shots of the lead; after the first round, there are now 12 players in that position.
“If I were Justin Thomas, I would be more upset than me in my position,” said Charles Howell III, who opened at even par (10 shots off the lead) but shot a 68 to cut his deficit to eight. “Justin’s played phenomenal golf and has done what he’s done, and he could theoretically fall quite a bit, and I could move up, and he’s played better than I have.”
Thomas said he didn’t think it felt weird with the lead, one he’s been sitting on since winning the BMW Championship on Sunday. “I felt I did a really good job in terms of getting myself where I need to be mentally,” he said. “I just didn’t quite hit enough fairways.”
Without the need for scenarios, there is now clarity. Meanwhile, the volatility of the leaderboard certainly has made things intriguing. Top-five guys from the previous format rarely suffered a significant drop. Play poorly this week, though, and it may prove more costly.
“There’s no insurance policy this week for anybody,” Casey said.
For those in the middle and back half of the pack, aggressive play is the gameplan. Casey said he had four birdies inside 2 feet, and another inside 4 feet. “I aimed at a bunch of stuff, which I don’t always do on a Thursday,” he said.
“I think it benefits the kind of middle of the pack in a way,” said Rickie Fowler, who started at 2 under but shot a 71 and is now nine shots off the lead. “Not that whoever starts in front doesn't have a good chance of winning. They still do. You start with a little bit of a lead. But I think kind of the guys maybe in the 8 to 15 area for sure.
“Before, you know, you look at Tiger winning the tournament last year, and you need a lot of things to kind of go your way in the old system to come out on top. Now you go play well, especially the first couple days, and you're right in the thick of it, and you know exactly what you need to do. It's not based on what someone else does.”
For someone like Howell, there’s still a long climb before he gets into contention. But he’s got a chance.
He’s also happy the Starting Strokes format gave those at the bottom of the field an acceptable score.
“I’m just glad they didn’t started the leader off at even, and us at plus 10,” Howell said, offering a smile. “I think that would have been even more humiliating.”