Tour Championship: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Justin Thomas, with caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay, will start the Tour Championship in the No. 3 spot on the FedExCup standings. Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The top 30 players on the PGA Tour in 2019-20 head down to Georgia this week for the Tour Championship, in hot pursuit of the $15 million bonus awarded to the winner.

This is the second year of staggered scoring for the Tour Championship, so pay attention to what effect, if any, it has on your fantasy game. Dustin Johnson is the tournament leader at 10 under, followed by Jon Rahm at 8 under, Justin Thomas at 7 under, Webb Simpson at 6 under and Collin Morikawa at 5 under. The rest of the field starts at least four shots back and it would take a minor miracle for anyone in slots 16-through-30 to win the title.

But there’s plenty of dough to be dispersed on the par-70, 7,346-yard East Lake layout designed by Donald Ross, Tom Bendelow and Rees Jones, among others.

LISTEN: Our latest ‘Under the Strap’ podcast with European Tour caddie Basile Dalberto

Quality ballstriking is critical at East Lake.

Rory McIlroy gained 11.2 strokes tee-to-green to win the 2019 Tour Championship and Xander Schauffele gained 8.5 strokes when he won in 2017.

Even with the best players of the season comprising the field, the scrambling is more difficult at East Lake than it is in the average PGA Tour event, so I’ve looked for players who have been saving pars consistently, either through their season or of late.

In the past, players have hit 55 percent of the fairways at East Lake compared to 62 percent on the season. So, proximity from the rough is important and can be found at (DJ and Finau are the only players in the field who rank top 10 on Tour in that category). Hitting the greens is not much different than the average event, 64 percent at East Lake, and 65 percent everywhere.

Our list is notable for two exceptions, considering the criteria for identifying favorites this week. McIlroy, the defending champion and two-time winner at East Lake, has his first child on the way and could withdraw at any moment. Besides, he’s struggled over recent months, with good reason of course. I remember those weeks leading up to fatherhood and I was nervous as a 22-handicapper on the first green at Oakmont. Also, Billy Horschel who has a win and T-2 in his last three starts. He was certainly under consideration but has been too inconsistent of late and barely slipped into the field. Perhaps he’ll prove us wrong and we wouldn’t argue with anyone who took a chance on Horschel this week.

In the most elite field in golf, however, it takes more than past performance on a course to crack the top 10.

Golfer power rankings

10. Brendon Todd (3-under) – He’s fourth on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy (71 percent) and gained 6.9 strokes putting last week en route to an eighth place finish at the BMW. In his only previous appearance at East Lake, he sizzled on the greens and was sharp when he missed them. Bunkers aren’t a problem: he’s sixth on Tour in sand save percentage. A mainstay on leaderboards since last fall, a strong finish in the Tour Championship would put a fitting cap on a career season.

9. Hideki Matsuyama (4-under) – After rewarding our confidence in him last week with a third-place finish at BMW fueled by deft pitching and adequate putting, expect Matsuyama to close the 2019-20 campaign with another strong finish. He’s landed in the top 10 in his last two starts at East Lake and three times total in six appearances. Since mid-July, he’s gained at least three strokes on approach in every other tournament, making him due for a laser-filled week with his irons. He’s gained strokes on the greens three weeks in a row, providing a ray of sunshine in what’s been a dark year for so many.

8. Kevin Kisner (1-under) – If you’re looking for a sleeper to shoot the lowest score this week – yet not win the tournament! – you could do worse than the steady Georgia Bulldog who ranks 25th on Tour (and third in the field) in driving accuracy. He’s been dialed with his irons and the putter over the last five events, all of which have ended with top 25s, including two top 5s. Starting the week nine shots behind the leader, the $15 million first prize is probably out of reach, still, there’s plenty of cash available and he’s ripe to collect it on a course where he’s finished in the top 10 in his last two tries (2017, 2019).

7. Tony Finau (2-under) – Stood tall and delivered last Sunday at Olympia Fields, firing a final-round 65 to clinch his rightful place in the Tour Championship. The fifth-place finish was his fourth top 10 in six starts and third since veteran caddie Mark Urbanek landed his bag. Has a pair of T-7s sandwiched around a T-15 in his three previous East Lake appearances and his putting has been on the upswing in recent weeks, including a whopping 4.6 strokes gained on the greens at Olympia Fields. Should translate to the slick Bermuda he’ll find in Atlanta.

6. Daniel Berger (4-under) – If anyone believes they can overcome a six-shot deficit and lift the Tour Championship trophy, it’s the lanky 27-year-old Floridian who has spent most of 2020 populating the first page of leaderboards. Was negative strokes gained in approach and putting last week yet still finished T-25 which indicates how solid he’s been through the bag throughout the season. Making his first appearance at the Tour Championship since 2017 and has three top 15s in those previous appearances. But he’s a better player now and determined to punctuate his best pro season.

5. Xander Schauffele (3-under) – The 2017 Tour Championship winner at East Lake recorded his seventh consecutive top-25 finish last week at Olympia Fields and now returns to a course where he leads the field in Strokes Gained and has broken par in 10 of 12 rounds (67.75 stroke average). Driving the ball extremely well and avoiding the dense Bermuda rough is imperative on the Donald Ross layout. With a runner-up and T-7 also on his East Lake resume, it’s unwise to overlook the laid-back, sweet swinging Californian this week.

4. Jon Rahm (8-under) – His record at East Lake: T-12, T-11-T-7 is solid but not spectacular. Although that’s the ideal adjective to describe the 66-footer he made on the first hole of sudden death to win the BMW last weekend. Again, it’s not as if he’s been bad in the Tour Championship, ranking seventh in SG: Total and third in SG: Approach among the 21 players who have been here before. Trailing by two shots to start the week should only fuel his aggressive nature. He’s been dominant off the tee during this torrid stretch of summer. All signs point to yet another extremely lucrative week for the young superstar.

3. Dustin Johnson (10-under) – There’s not a golfer on Earth who would turn down a two-stroke lead on the first tee of a tournament. Yet, as we saw last year with Justin Thomas, having the lead on Thursday doesn’t guarantee a victory on Sunday… or in this case Friday and Monday. Those two shots can vanish in 15 minutes. Considering he won by 11 shots two weeks ago and shot the lowest 72-hole score again last week at Olympia Fields, it’s clear he’s playing the game better than anyone on this planet at the moment. He’s finished outside the top 6 only twice in his last six starts at East Lake despite ranking 18th in the field in SG: Short Game and 21st (last) in SG: Putting. Those aspects of his game have never been better than they are right now.

2. Webb Simpson (6-under) – Threw me a late curveball last week by withdrawing just as I was picking him to win in Chicago. Skipping the BMW cost him only one shot, however and the Tour’s ultimate prize remains within reach. It’s been surprising when the Wake Forest grad has played poorly this season. He has three top 10s in seven trips to East Lake, including a T-4 in 2018. Bermuda is his favorite putting surface and he gained 4.7 strokes in his last two tournaments – top 10s at Wyndham (on Bermuda) and the Northern Trust. Ranks second on Tour in proximity from the rough (38’ 5”). Leads the field in SG: Short Game at East Lake over the last 24 rounds and is third in SG: Putting.

1. Justin Thomas (7-under) – He’s 24-under in his four Tour Championship starts, never finishing worse than T-7. He’s amassed these finishes despite ranking outside the top 10 among the current field in SG: Putting and SG: Short Game at East Lake. Has struggled since his victory in Memphis, with a T-25 at the BMW his best finish in three starts, so arrives in Atlanta flying as far under the radar as someone with his talent, record and pedigree can possibly fly. Beware the overlooked superstar on a course where he feels comfortable and possesses confidence. A Tour-best 10th top 10 of 2019-20 seems inevitable and I’m expecting much, much more.

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