The first goal of every player on the PGA Tour is to make it to the season-ending playoffs. Once that is achieved it is all about doing enough to bag one of the top 30 positions in the FedEx Cup rankings which earns a place at the Tour Championship.
Following a change in the format of the tournament in which the players’ starting score is defined by their position in the FedEx Cup standings, the winner of the Tour Championship now also wins the FedEx Cup which brings with it the biggest financial prize in all of golf. The FedEx Cup leader before the annual trip to East Lake starts with -10, the player in second spot starts at -8, third at -7, fourth a -6, fifth at -5, six to 10 at -4, 11 to 15 at -3, 16 to 20 at -2, 21 to 25 at -1 and the rest on even par.
2022: Rory McIlroy
If Rory McIlroy’s bank manager could pick a golf course for him to be perfectly suited to, he would pick East Lake. McIlroy showed once again just how well matched his game is to the host of the Tour Championship as he won the FedEx Cup for a third time.
McIlroy’s task was tough from the outset as he began the Tour Championship six shots behind FedEx Cup leader Scottie Scheffler. It got even tougher early on as he dropped four shots on the first two holes of the tournament. McIlroy, who had a lot else to occupy his mind, refused to accept any excuses and gathered himself to hunt down Scheffler.
Although he would apologise to Scheffler’s family after the tournament and say, “Scottie deserves at least half of this trophy”, McIlroy was ruthless on Sunday. As a nervous-looking Scheffler made multiple mistakes, McIlroy was supremely confident as he went on to win the Tour Championship by a single shot. Scheffler ended up in a share of second place with Sungjae Im on -20, Xander Schauffele couldn’t build on his fast start to finish -18 while Max Homa capped the best season of his career in a share of fifth with Justin Thomas.
2021: Patrick Cantlay
Patrick Cantlay won the most lucrative prize in golf, getting the better of Jon Rahm in a tense battle at the 2021 Tour Championship. As Cantlay himself said, this is the longest he has ever held a lead in a tournament as he started the tournament on -10. Without the advantage he held over Rahm he would not have won at East Lake but whatever you think of the nature of this tournament, Cantlay deserves a lot of credit for hanging tough under the pressure of playing for $15 million.
This win marks an important waypoint in one of the most arduous journeys in golf. A serious back injury and personal tragedy combined to mean that his professional career did not take off as everybody expected after doing so well as an amateur. Overcoming those setbacks to become the FedEx Cup champion is a remarkable achievement for the understated Cantlay who will make his Ryder Cup debut after the best season of his career.
Jon Rahm can rightly feel quite aggrieved that he was not crowned FedEx Cup champion this season. The Spaniard has climbed to the top of the world rankings, had to withdraw after the third round at the Memorial and actually shot a better score than Cantlay across four rounds at East Lake. Rahm had the joint lowest gross score of the week alongside Kevin Na who was looking to have forced his way onto the American Ryder Cup team.
2020: Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson has not always had the best reputation as a finisher in big tournaments. Despite arriving at the end of the season in very good form a couple of times, he had never before been able to get his hands on the FedEx Cup. That all changed in 2020 when the new format, in which he began the Tour Championship on -10, was a major help and saw Johnson finally win big at East Lake.
Despite the benefits of the format, Johnson did not make it easy for himself. Indeed, he was pushed hard by Xander Schauffele on Sunday, the man who “won” the tournament once you discount the handicap system. To his great credit, Johnson came good when the pressure was at its greatest, making some difficult putts just when Schauffele was starting to believe that he could claim a second Tour Championship win.
The 13th hole was the turning point in the tournament. Schauffele had the better of the front nine and then made birdies at 11 and 12. They both made a bit of a mess of the 13th but while Schauffele dropped a shot, Johnson rattled in a par putt following a flubbed chip which gave him the confidence and momentum he needed to see him home safely.
2019: Rory McIlroy
Justin Thomas and Justin Rose won the 2017 and 2018 Tour Championship respectively without winning the Tour Championship. The PGA Tour felt that having two concurrent storylines was too difficult to follow so changed the format for 2019. The 30 players in the field for the Tour Championship were handicapped before the tournament began with their starting score decided by their standing in the FedEx Cup rankings after the BMW Championship. Thus Justin Thomas began on -10 at East Lake but he had a poor week and Rory McIlroy took advantage to win the FedEx Cup for the second time.
Just like his first FedEx Cup win, McIlroy had a late surge at East Lake to thank for his success which came with an increased bonus of $15 million. One year after the galleries were very much cheering for his playing partner Tiger Woods, the fans were fully on McIlroy’s side as he did battle with Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele. He was bang in the mood to give the fans exactly what they wanted and duly joined Woods as one of only two players to win the FedEx Cup twice.
2018: Tiger Woods
Rory McIlroy is one of the world’s most popular golfers and always takes a big gallery with him wherever he plays. Even he was overwhelmed by the scenes at the end of the 2018 Tour Championship as thousands of fans flooded down the 18th fairway at East Lake to get a glimpse of Tiger Woods’ winning putt for his 80th PGA Tour title and his first win in five years.
Woods’ achievement, coming back from an incredible list of injuries and problems away from the golf course, was every bit as remarkable as the sight of the galleries at East Lake. The man himself put it best in his post-round interview, remarking, “I just can’t believe I’ve pulled this off.”
In the final reckoning, Woods was two shots clear of Billy Horschel but this was more of a battling performance in which he utilised all of his experience rather than one of the swashbuckling wins of old. That takes nothing at all away from the win though and Woods was rightly the number one story even though it was Justin Rose who ended on top of the FedEx Cup rankings for the season.
2017: Xander Schauffele
Not since 2009 has the FedEx Cup winner managed to get their hands on the trophy without winning the Tour Championship. However, Justin Thomas’s position was so strong heading to East Lake that a second place finish to Xander Schauffele was good enough to win the $10 million bonus.
Schauffele would clearly have loved to have won the FedEx Cup but he will look back on this week with nothing but happy memories. Not only was he able to prove himself up to the task of scoring well on a tough course and of holding off a world-class field in his rookie PGA Tour season, but Schauffele earned over £1.5 million for the win and a further $2 million for his third-place finish in the FedEx Cup standings.
While Thomas knew he was going to win the FedEx Cup during the closing stages of the Tour Championship there was still room for drama with Schauffele stealing the tournament win with a birdie on the last hole. The victory also made Schauffele the first player to win twice on his first PGA Tour season in six years.