The Tour Championship, which tees off on Thursday at East Lake in Atlanta, brings an end to the PGA Tour’s 2014-15 season and Zach Johnson is in an interesting position.
Only 30 players qualified for the 72-hole event that has an $8.25 prize fund and offers an additional $10 million bonus to the winner of the four-event FedEx Cup Playoffs. The winner of the bonus won’t necessarily be the same player who wins The Tour Championship. That’s where Johnson, the reigning British Open champion, figures in.
The FedEx Playoffs began in 2007 to provide the PGA Tour with a much-needed climax to its season. The point system remains confusing, however. The ranking points accumulated in the previous tournaments are reset to create more suspense for the last event.
One thing is certain: if any of the top five in the standings wins at East Lake, that player also wins the $10 million. Johnson is No. 6.
That’s not a bad position to be in. The top five are Jason Day, who won the BMW Championship at Conway Farms in Lake Forest on Sunday; Jordan Spieth, who won the Masters and U.S. Open in the first half of the season but hasn’t been as sharp lately; Rickie Fowler, winner of the Deutsche Bank Champion in the Playoffs; Henrik Stenson, winner of the FedEx Cup in 2013; and Bubba Watson.
There’s no guarantee that Sunday’s winner will come from that group, though Day is red hot. He’s won four of his last six starts and became the world’s No. 1-ranked player with his win at Conway Farms.
Johnson, meanwhile, isn’t one of the game’s much-publicized young guns – a group of twenty-somethings that includes Day, Spieth, Fowler and Rory McIlroy, most recent of the previous No. 1s. But, at 39, Johnson’s no slouch. The Iowa-based veteran is the reigning British Open champion. He also includes the 2007 Masters and Illinois’ two PGA Tour events — the 2012 John Deere Classic and the first BMW Championship at Conway two years ago – among his 12 PGA Tour victories.
Most important, he’s playing good, too. Johnson finished his last round at Conway Farms with five birdies and shot 64, the day’s lowest score. That boosted him from No. 7 to No. 6 in the FedEx standings. While he would have liked to crack the top five, Johnson has the best shot at golf’s biggest paycheck if none of the top five win at East Lake.
“I’ll take it,’’ said Johnson. “I was very frustrated (last week) because I felt like I was in a place to do some work. I figured something out with my ball-striking going into the last nine. You can just chalk up that last five holes to patience.’’
The struggle to find his swing, though, took a toll on Johnson.
“I’m spent. I’m done. I’m ready for a break more mentally than I am physically,’’ said Johnson. “Physically I’m fine. That’s why I work out. That’s why I’ve got a team of guys to get me motivated and ready to play.’’
Though he admits “mental fatigue is there,’’ Johnson’s not about to skip a chance to win $10 million. He can do it by winning at East Lake and have Day finishing no better than a tie for second. Even if he doesn’t win the tournament Johnson would have a mathematical chance of claiming the bonus by finishing second, depending on how the players ranked about him fare.
Here and there
Illinois senior Thomas Detry tied the Olympia Fields North course record with a 7-under-par 63 in the Fighting Illini Invitational, but the Illini settled for a fifth-place finish behind champion Florida State. Detry, who finished second individually in the 54-hole competition, matched a score posted by Rickie Fowler in 2007.
Dave Ryan of Taylorville became the first three-time winner of the Illinois Senior Amateur with a five-stroke win at Ravisloe, in Homewood, and Gary March took the Illinois Senior Open at McHenry Country Club.
The Illinois Super Senior Open begins its 36-hole run on Tuesday at Pine Meadow in Mundelein.