By Dave Shedloski
Rickie Fowler is well aware of all that is on the line for him Sunday in the final round of the BMW Championship, but he also is cognizant of all the things that can go wrong if he thinks about it.
“How could I possibly execute from shot to shot,” he began, “if I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to win a golf tournament and I’m playing for wherever I’ll be seeded next week, and I’m playing for the Presidents Cup and the World Ranking, and whatever else we can throw on top of that?’ I mean, screw it. The better I take care of my game plan and execution, the better I am for this week, next week, everything.”
One thing Fowler probably doesn’t need to worry about is winning, but he’s got plenty of company. One day after Hideki Matsuyama broke the 18-hole record with a nine-under 63 at Medinah Country Club’s No. 3 Course, Justin Thomas torched it Saturday with a 61. Seeking his first win of the season, Thomas will begin Sunday’s final round with a six-stroke lead over Tony Finau and Patrick Cantlay after surging to 21-under 195.
Only two players, Rory Sabbatini at 202 and Jon Rahm at 203, are fewer than nine strokes behind Thomas, the 2017 PGA Tour Player of the Year. Fowler, by the way, is in a group 10 shots back.
But even if a handsome final round can’t earn a win this week, perhaps it can set up a win in the season finale, the Tour Championship.
After Sunday’s conclusion here, the top 30 players in the FedEx Cup standings will advance to the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. But in a first in PGA Tour history—and almost certain a first in the history of tournament golf—the entire field will not start at even par but rather will be awarded strokes based on each player’s position.
Should Thomas win Sunday at Medinah, he’d enter the Tour Championship as the FedEx Cup points leader and would begin the tournament at 10 under par, two strokes ahead of the second-place player in the standings, which currently is World No. 1 Brooks Koepka. Thomas’ lead would increase over players farther down the list with a maximum of 10 shots over the last five qualifiers.
A player’s prospects for winning the $15 million bonus in Atlanta could hinge on how they perform Sunday.
“I’ll focus on next week when this week is over,” said Rahm, who at the time was only five shots behind Thomas and hoped he wouldn’t pull away. Then Thomas holed out from 180 yards for eagle at the par-4 16th and added a birdie at 17 to, well … pull away.
So maybe next week is going to hit him a little earlier. Like prior to his 12:09 p.m. (CDT) tee time.
Brandt Snedeker wasn’t going to wait that long. His third-round 67, which included two chip-in birdies, was fueled by the notion that playing safe this weekend was kind of dangerous if he wanted to add a second FedEx Cup title to the one he captured in 2012.
“There’s no real benefit for me to finish 15th [this week],” he reasoned. “The benefit is for me to finish top-three and move up the FedEx Cup points list. There’s no point to shoot away from pins. Tenth doesn’t do any good this week. In years past, it might have helped me a little bit more, the old format with the points the way they were. Now it doesn’t. Top-three if you want to move anywhere; that’s my thought for tomorrow. I’ve got to try to finish top 2-3 to be up there as high as I can.”
Some players don’t have the luxury of trying to position themselves. They’re just trying to extend their seasons—like Jason Kokrak, who began the week 32nd in FedEx Cup points and remains 32nd after a third-round 70 left him T-24. He’s never played in the Masters and a berth at the Tour Championship ensures a berth at Augusta National in April. Kind of a big deal.
Then there’s Tiger Woods, who needs to move up 10 spots in the final round to return to East Lake and defend his Tour Championship title. He figured a 60 might put him safely inside the red zone.
Seems like a good target score.
The problem is that no one is going to be holding back.
“Obviously, you’ve got to go out and play aggressive and hopefully make a lot of birdies,” said U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, who hung a bogey-free 64 on the board early Saturday and was fixing to try to do the same in the final round.
And that goes for next week, too, he said. “No matter how far you’re behind you’re going to have to play more aggressive than you would normally. Going in there I’m trying to get the game in a good place. I’ll definitely be five, six shots back, however, it is going into Thursday. You’ll play more aggressive than normal.”
Woodland is further motivated by making a last-ditch attempt to get in the top eight on the U.S. Presidents Cup standings and earn one of eight automatic berths on the team Woods will captain in Australia in December. The qualifying process ends Sunday. Woodland is ninth on the points list, followed, respectively, by Finau, Fowler and Patrick Reed. Any of the four could mathematically jump into the top eight, though Cantlay, sitting eighth, presents a sturdy roadblock with his T-2 standing on the leader board.
“I’m just trying to show form,” Woodland said. “The goal is to not be in that predicament.”
Multiple races. Myriad possibilities. Big and small wins on the line. No pressure. And no doubts about what needs to be done.