By Dan Reardon
Now in its 11th year, the FedExCup Playoffs has evolved into the kind of end-of-the-season series Commissioner Tim Finchem envisioned at the outset. The roster of courses and locations has grown over the years. The formula has been tweaked to make it both understandable and competitive.
It has had great champions like Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and current champion, Justin Thomas. It has had unexpected winners like Bill Haas and Billy Horschel.
Next year it slides a few weeks earlier on the calendar, clear of football’s start and the baseball’s pennant races.
This week it launches with The Northern Trust at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey, a course that will be hosting for the fourth time. Two of the previous three editions there were settled in playoffs — Vijay Singh in 2008 and Matt Kuchar in 2010.
Dustin Johnson starts exactly where he stood after his playoff win in the event over Jordan Spieth a year ago — #1 in the points standings. The tournament begins with 125 in the field, but only the top 100 will advance to Boston for the Dell Technologies Championship.
CBS Sports lead golf analyst Sir Nick Faldo will be alongside Jim Nantz as the network wraps ups its season on the PGA TOUR. He offered some thoughts on The Northern Trust and the beginning of the FedExCup Playoffs.
>>WATCH: The Northern Trust Live Stream
Over the last three weeks we have seen the Tour on three classic layouts — a Robert Trent Jones course at Bellerive for the PGA; a Donald Ross course at Sedgewick for the Wyndham; and this week a Tillinghast course at Ridgewood for The Northern Trust. On these traditional layouts, does game management become more important for success?
It becomes a lot more important. The old school has that nice bit of strategy to it. They tend to cut the corners. They’re quite happy bombing it out there. But they have had some wet weather up here. They have some serious rough. A bit of course management will come into play with the old-school greens. They’re so undulating. Back then, if they had a Stimpmeter, they were probably seven or eight, and now they are 11 or 12. It makes the greens really treacherous.
Is this course more dangerous or more friendly to the field?
The trees are in play quite a bit. So, there is a bit of danger lurking. You don’t want to go long on the old-school greens. They all slope pretty significantly from back to front. That’s a part of your strategy as well.
You said early in the year (if Tiger makes it all the way back), “These youngsters haven’t had their head handed to them by Tiger like dear old Ernie and Phil. He may get more resistance with this group.” Are you seeing them paying respect to Tiger but at the same time not showing any intimidation?
There is an element of it, but nothing like it was 10 or 15 years ago. [Then] if he had the 54-hole lead, 97% of the time he won. All these youngsters have been inspired. They have watched Tiger. They also now can see that Tiger has his blemishes.
In the past, Tiger’s game was pretty much flawless, and now he has his own issues on how to make a score. The mind attention was so fascinating years ago. If you’re thinking of somebody, you’re giving him your energy. Today, they may be thinking of other people. If they see Dustin Johnson get to the top of a leaderboard, or Jason Day or Rory, there’s a little bit of “Oh wow.” Those guys can finish you off, but nothing like the level that Tiger [once] did it.
Based on what you have seen, particularly at Carnoustie and Bellerive, do you consider Tiger to be all the way back, or are there things you are still looking for?
There is still that element missing, isn’t there? He’s done phenomenal to get back in contention. Bellerive was amazing. But still, if you are going to be critical, there are moments when he could have taken control of the Open Championship at Carnoustie. And an old Tiger would have taken control.
Now he makes a physical or technical or mental mistake himself, which he rarely, rarely did [before]. When he is close on the leaderboard and there are shots that he doesn’t like or can’t deal with — when there is water right, he needs to fade it — he still can hit a poor shot and cost himself a shot.
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The FedExCup Playoffs feels a little like a major. Some players can flip the switch and have their game when it comes time for a major. Who out there now can flip that switch?
In the past, we have seen that Rory can find the switch. Dustin Johnson can find the switch. Jason Day can find the switch. Jordan Spieth as well. They all have been able to do that in the past. Justin Thomas, right now, is the man who can find the switch. He seems to control the elements in his game. Over the next three events, he could be very dangerous.
We have seen in recent FedExCup Playoffs that the hot player can ride momentum through the four weeks. Billy Horschel did it. Last year, to a large extent, Xander Schauffele did it. Who do you see out there that could be that hot player?
Adam Scott has found some form, hasn’t he? Zach Johnson is lurking as well. Marc Leishman plays consistently. Of course, there is Brooks Koepka. Will this inspire Koepka to just plow on?
Francesco Molinari. There’s your real guy who could just play consistently. He has had such a consistent summer, obviously, with an Open win. That’s a real under-the-radar guy, Molinari. So, I will go with somebody like that.
That’s the exciting thing. There could be four or five of guys who play really well and have a great shot.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.