Who’s got a chance at East Lake? Starting strokes’ short history gives a hint
The Tour Championship’s starting strokes format began in 2019, but if its three years of history are to be trusted, you only need to look as far as the top five seeds to find the 2022 FedExCup winner.
It’s a small sample size, for sure, but Rory McIlroy is the only player in starting-strokes history to go on to win despite not being the top seed.
The first year of the new format – which staggers the top 30 by their FedExCup standing – was in 2019. That year, No. 1 seed Justin Thomas started at 10 under while eventual champion McIlroy, the fifth seed, started at 5 under.
McIlroy would make up that deficit by Sunday as the only player to break par all four days.
After McIlroy, the No. 1 seed took advantage of the two-stroke lead in 2020 and 2021.
Dustin Johnson won the FedExCup in dominating fashion in 2020, winning two of the three FedExCup postseason events and losing another in a playoff. Thomas and Xander Schauffele each got within two shots in the final couple holes in the final round at East Lake, but a birdie on the back nine solidified the 23rd victory of Johnson’s PGA Tour career.
The next year, No. 1 seed Patrick Cantlay held off world No. 1 Jon Rahm with multiple clutch shots on the final back nine to clinch a one-shot victory.
Finally, we arrive at 2022.
McIlroy and Cantlay have a chance to win once again, starting at 4 under and 8 under, respectively, but if the past two years are any indication, world No. 1 and 2022 Masters champion Scottie Scheffler is the bet to win at East Lake as the No. 1 seed.
If it’s a repeat of 2019, Scheffler’s best friend Sam Burns has the advantage as the fifth seed. Burns isn’t a long shot at all, having three wins and eight top-10s on Tour this season. Eleventh on Tour in strokes gained: total at 1.574, Burns could easily make up the five strokes that separate him and pal Scheffler.
Another star in contention is Schauffele, who will start at 6 under as the fourth seed. Schauffele also has three wins this season and is No. 6 on Tour in strokes gained: total at 1.709. He shot the lowest score to par over four rounds in ’20, but couldn’t make up enough ground on Johnson as he started the event seven strokes behind.
At 4 under, if Cam Smith, McIlroy, Tony Finau, Sepp Straka or Sungjae Im won, they would make history in the starting strokes era, erasing the largest deficit ever to win the Tour Championship.
You never know what could happen over four days and 72 holes of competition, but McIlroy proved in 2019 that just because you start at a disadvantage, doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance.