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Len Ziehm On Golf

The stage is set for Thomas to cash in big again at East Lake

Justin Thomas had a big weekend to win the BMW Championship and No. 1 seed at East Lake.


Record scores were the story after each of the first three rounds of the BMW Championship at Medinah. Not so in Sunday’s final round, however.

While Justin Thomas came out the champion, the final 18 at Medinah basically set the stage for what comes next – The Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta. The last event of the PGA Tour’s 2018-19 season has a weird, new format and the second of the three FedEx Cup Playoff events decided who would be the leader when the last one tees off on Thursday.

To no one’s surprise it’ll be Thomas, who started Sunday’s final round at Medinah with a six-shot lead in the BMW and won by three over playing partner Patrick Cantlay. They climbed to first and second in the FedEx Cup standings and now they’ll battle again for golf’s biggest cash prize under different circumstances.

Under the new playoff format, Thomas will sleep on a two-stroke lead over Cantlay for the next four nights. Then those two plus the other 28 qualifiers for The Tour Championship will compete over 72 holes again. When the points are re-calculated the player with the most gets $15 million.

Thomas doesn’t know what to make of the new format.

“I can certainly say a thousand percent I never slept on a Wednesday lead, but I’m definitely excited for that,’’ he said. “ I’m just going to try to win the golf tournament as if everybody starts at zero.’’

There was always the possibility of two winners at The Tour Championship during its first 12 years. The winner of the tournament and the winner of the bonus weren’t always one in the same. Organizers didn’t like that, so now there’ll be just one winner at East Lake. He’ll be a very rich man, and the PGA Tour expects to have a more dramatic finish to its season-ender.

Thomas, who won the FedEx Cup in 2017 under the old format, will be a marked man. He’ll have a handicap advantage of some sort on all 29 of his rivals. The scoreboard at Atlanta will start with him at minus-10 and Cantlay at minus-8. Brooks Koepka, No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings and the leader in the FedEx standings going into the BMW Championship, dropped to third and will start at minus-7 at East Lake.

The other 27 players in the field will also be handicapped, all the way down to those ranked 26-30. They’ll start at even par.

As for the wrapup at Medinah, Thomas set a course record on Thursday with a 65, a score matched by Jason Kokrak. Hideki Matsuyama lowered the record to 63 on Friday and Thomas to 61 on Saturday. Thomas went on to shoot 68 Sunday for a 25-uder-par 263 score and a three-shot victory over Cantlay with Matsuyama two shots further back in third.

Thomas said he was nervous going in because of the pressure require to protect a six-stroke lead.

“I had guys telling me congratulations on 13 today, even on the front nine when the tournament was so far from over,’’ he said. “You can get it going sideways and make a lot of bogeys pretty quick.’’

While Thomas had won nine previous PGA tournaments including the PGA Championship in 2017, he had no top-10 finishes this year until Sunday. Cantlay put the pressure on him with three straight birdies on holes 7-9 and Thomas’ lead eventually shriveled from six strokes to two.

“Patrick caught fire and I couldn’t really get anything going,’’ said Thomas. “But from 11 on I really, really played some quality golf and hit a lot of really great golf shots and great putts.’’