Sobel: The 11 Players Who Can Actually Win the New-Look Tour Championship

Credit:

Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports. Pictured: Rory McIlroy

Aug 21, 2019, 07:45 PM EDT
  • The 2019 Tour Championship begins on Thursday, August 22 at East Lake in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Justin Thomas, who will start the tournament with a two-stroke lead at -10, is the favorite at +225.
  • Jason Sobel looked at the biggest deficit each player in the field has overcome to win to identify who can catch JT and win the FedEx Cup.

ATLANTA – With a staggered scoring start unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed in professional golf, it’s realistic to look at Tour Championship competitors ranging from 10-under to even-par on the pre-tournament leaderboard and wonder: Which guys actually have a chance of winning this thing?

Since this is a first-of-its-kind format, there’s no prior data which helps us understand whether there’s a cutoff to the number of players who can win, but there is a way of examining past results which can potentially help us predict this week’s outcome.

I decided to examine each player’s largest-career come-from-behind victory on the PGA Tour, a statistic which the on-site staff has made readily available for obvious reasons.

Using this data, we can start eliminating players who have never made up their current deficit to win a PGA Tour event, which will then leave us with a specific number who have a chance of winning this week, based on prior history.

Let’s first start with the four players in this week’s field who have never won. Abraham Ancer (85-1), Sungjae Im (225-1), Jason Kokrak (275-1) and Tommy Fleetwood (85-1) are easily eliminated, even if the last of those names owns a handful of global victories. Solely using PGA Tour wins in this determination, those four can’t make up their current deficits, simply because they’ve never made up any deficit.

Now let’s use the Drake stratagem and start from the bottom.

Bryson DeChambeau (275-1), Louis Oosthuizen (225-1), Charles Howell III (275-1) and Lucas Glover (400-1) will each begin the week at even-par, 10 strokes behind leader Justin Thomas. The largest deficit any of them has overcome is 7. (DeChambeau after 36 holes at last year’s Dell Technologies Championship and Glover also at the midway point of the 2005 Children’s Miracle Network Classic.)

Therefore, we can eliminate four more from title contention.

Among those starting the week at 1-under are Marc Leishman (225-1), Corey Conners (275-1) and Chez Reavie (275-1). The largest come-from-behind win for any of them was Leishman’s six-shot comeback after the third round of the 2012 Travelers Championship.

That’s three more who, based on this specific analysis, don’t have a chance this week.

There is a quintet of heavy hitters at 2-under that includes Justin Rose (45-1), Paul Casey (75-1), Brandt Snedeker (130-1), Rickie Fowler (55-1) and Kevin Kisner (130-1). At 8 strokes behind, do any of them stand a chance?

For the first time in this exercise, the answer is yes.

In fact, both Rose and Snedeker have made up deficits of exactly 8 shots on multiple occasions; Rose did so after trailing by that number following 18 holes at the 2014 Quicken Loans National and 54 holes at the 2017 WGC-HSBC Champions, while Snedeker accomplished the feat after down that many midway through the 2013 RBC Canadian Open and the 2016 Farmers Insurance Open.

Casey, Fowler and Kisner are eliminated, but Rose and Snedeker remain in contention.

A similarly heavy-hitting quintet of players stands at 3-under before the opening round. The list of those who are 7 shots back includes Tony Finau (50-1), Gary Woodland (85-1), Adam Scott (45-1), Dustin Johnson (28-1) and Hideki Matsuyama (35-1).

Of these five guys, only one has ever overcome a 7-stroke deficiency – and you get bonus points if you knew it was Matsuyama at the 2014 Memorial Tournament, when he trailed by that number after the opening round.

Finau, Woodland, Scott and DJ are out. Matsuyama’s chances remain alive.

Now we get to those starting at 4-under and a half-dozen strokes behind Thomas. This is where we find Jon Rahm (17-1), Matt Kuchar (50-1), Xander Schauffele (30-1) and Webb Simpson (22-1).

Three of these four players have overcome a 6-shot deficit – and strangely enough, it’s the most experienced of the four who hasn’t, which eliminates Kuchar.

Rahm (7 shots after the opening round of the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open), Schauffele (6 shots after the opening round of this year’s Sentry Tournament of Champions) and Simpson (6 shots after the first and second rounds of the 2012 U.S. Open) are still in contention.

This will remain a common theme for the rest of the potential contenders.

Rory McIlroy (+950) starts 5 strokes back; no problem, he’s won from 9 down before.

Patrick Reed (17-1) is 4 back; he trailed by that many after the first round of the Northern Trust just two weeks ago.

Brooks Koepka (+510) and Patrick Cantlay (+475) are 3 shots and 2 shots back, respectively; they’ve each rallied from 7-stroke deficits to win previous titles.

So, there you have it: Of the 29 players chasing Thomas this week, 10 own a legitimate chance of winning this week, based solely on past results.

Rose. Snedeker. Matsuyama. Rahm. Schauffele. Simpson. McIlroy. Reed. Koepka. Cantlay.

Which, of course, means there are really 11 players in the mix.

Let’s not forget about JT, who might have more pressure on him than anyone, trying not to cough up $15 million after being handed a 2-stroke advantage.

If history repeats, it likely won’t happen.

Thomas has converted a remarkable eight of nine career 2-stroke leads after any round. That includes going 2-for-2 after the opening round, 2-for-2 after the second round and 4-for-5 after the third round, losing only this year’s Genesis Open, when he led by 4 through 54 holes, but finished solo second.

This thing isn’t over. As we’ve seen, more than one-third of the chasers have overcome their current deficits in the past.

The biggest problem for them, though, will be specifically overcoming Thomas, who’s shown a propensity for success in this particular situation.

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