Christian Petersen/PGA of America
By Joel Beall
Finding a pattern through FedEx Cup history is demanding, because the PGA Tour’s postseason has been far from procedural. The playoff system’s point system and formats have been tinkered with on multiple occasions (R.I.P. Steve Sands’ board), the venues have rotated, even the schedule itself—with the postseason downsizing from four tournaments to three—has been modified. In theory, not a set of points conducive to takeaways.
Yet, if you squint hard enough, a few common threads do emerge from past playoff winners. As the 2020 postseason begins this week at TPC Boston, here are five common traits among the 13 FedEx Cup champs.
Pre-playoff ranking matters
This is not a dance for Cinderella. Nine winners were ranked in the top 10 FedEx Cup standings heading into the playoffs. Make that 11 of 13 if the qualifier is stretch to top 20 (Bill Haas at No. 15 in 2011, Brandt Snedeker No. 19 in 2012.) The two outliers are Rory McIlroy (No. 36 in 2016) and Billy Horschel (No. 69 in 2014). So it’s not surprise that, when subtracting Horschel from the equation, the average FedEx Cup champ’s starting position in the playoffs is 8.58.
If you want to drill down further, seven of the 13 have been in the top five: Tiger Woods (2007, 2009), Jim Furyk (2010), Jordan Spieth (2015), Justin Thomas (2017), Justin Rose (2018) and McIlroy (2019). Meaning this year’s champ will likely come from the group of Thomas (No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings), Collin Morikawa, Webb Simpson, Bryson DeChambeau and Sungjae Im (Nos. 2-5).
In short, you may want to rethink that longshot bet on Rory Sabbatini (No. 120 heading into the Northern Trust).
They need to be tee-to-green beasts
At least during their postseason run. Eight of the 13 winners finished fourth or better in strokes gained/tee-to-green in the playoffs, that number ballooning to 11 when including strong performances from Furyk (seventh), Horschel (11th) and Snedeker (15th) in the category.
The aberrations are Haas (43rd) and Spieth (50th). On a related note, neither had a particularly good playoff run before winning at East Lake: Haas went T24-T61-T16, Spieth cut-cut-T13. Conversely, Spieth led the tour in sg/tee-to-green during the regular season, and Haas wasn’t too shabby either (26th in sg/tee-to-green in ‘11). If you’re looking for a metric that forecasts success over the next three weeks, here you go.
Putting does not matter
This tenet has been well established over a season by Mark Broadie’s strokes gained methodology, but it holds true in the playoffs’ condensed window. Only Horschel, Woods and Snedeker finished in the top 15 sg/putting during their postseason runs, with McIlroy (98th) and Singh (102nd) winning despite ranking near the bottom in the short game category.
Taking a glance at this year’s sg/putting leaders, only three would seem to be in the FedEx Cup mix: DeChambeau (fifth), Patrick Reed (ninth) and Simpson (12th).
The first two playoff events are more important than you think
This may seem elementary. However, rarely can players coast into Atlanta off their regular-season point allotment.
Nine of the 13 winners recorded a win or runner-up finish in one of their first two starts of the postseason. Yes, this applied to the old four-tournament lineup as well. In fact, when the BMW Championship was the third playoff event, only three FedEx Cup winners logged a win or runner-up at the event…and in all three of those instances, the winner had already recorded a win or runner-up at the Northern Trust or Dell Technologies Championship. No wonder they shortened the postseason.
The four players that didn’t bring home a gold or silver medal: McIlroy in 2019 (T6 at the Northern Trust, T19 at the BMW), Spieth in 2015 (cut-cut), Haas in 2011 (T24-T61) and Furyk in 2010 (skipped first event, T37-T15). Perhaps more than we give it credit, early momentum does matter in the FedEx Cup.
Before the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup became one in the same, eight players captured the Tour Championship to win the FedEx Cup. Still, even those who didn’t win in Atlanta shared a common strategy: Hit greens, and hit them often.
Keeping in mind the limited field at the Tour Championship, FedEx Cup winners’ average finish in greens in regulation at East Lake is fourth, with seven winners finishing first or second in the category. The two outliers are, again, Spieth (ninth in GIR at the 2015 Tour Championship) and Haas (11th in ‘11). This is not necessarily a surprise; East Lake is a challenging track, but also straightforward. Avoid trouble off the tee, and find the dance floor. Note: Also a good strategy at 99.99 percent of golf courses.