MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Much of professional men’s golf’s attention was on a California courtroom on Tuesday, where a federal judge ruled that it was OK for the PGA Tour to ban three players who left for the rival LIV Golf series from competing in the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
Starting on Thursday, eyes will return to the course, where world No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler and others will start their quest for the FedEx Cup in the FedEx St. Jude Championship at TPC Southwind, the first leg of the playoffs.
“Going into the FedEx Cup Playoffs ranked No. 1, nothing’s really going to change for me,” Scheffler said. “I’m just trying to come out here, have a good start and put myself in position to win this tournament. Obviously the field is really good, all the best players in the world are here, and I’m just looking forward to the challenge of this week.”
Well, not all of the best players in the world are here — and it’s still unclear how many of the best will still be performing on the PGA Tour after the playoffs.
Open Championship winner Cameron Smith, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, is the latest top golfer linked to Saudi Arabian-backed LIV Golf. The Telegraph of London reported on Tuesday that Smith had agreed to a deal worth more than $100 million to join the new circuit, and Smith didn’t do much to quash the report during a news conference.
While Tuesday’s courtroom victory was big for the PGA Tour, losing a player of Smith’s caliber, or worse, having him lift the FedEx Cup at East Lake in Atlanta in three weeks and then defecting to LIV Golf, would be difficult to swallow.
Here’s what to watch in the FedEx Cup Playoffs:
The LIV guys aren’t here
United States District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman’s ruling that the PGA Tour could ban Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford from the playoffs while they are suspended is significant. It was a victory for the PGA Tour in what could be the first of many battles between the dueling circuits.
Elliot Peters, the PGA Tour’s attorney, argued during the hearing that having the LIV players in the field, wearing LIV hats and shirts and talking about the new circuit during news conferences, would be a “platform” for its competitors.
“It’s a fact that the competition is fierce,” Peters said.
In a memo sent to PGA Tour players, commissioner Jay Monahan wrote, “With [Tuesday’s] news, our players, fans and partners can now focus on what really matters over the next three weeks: the best players in the world competing in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, capping off an incredibly compelling season with the crowning of the FedEx Cup champion at the Tour Championship.”
With those three players out, the field for the FedEx St. Jude Championship is set at 121 players. Daniel Berger (back), Lanto Griffin (back), Tommy Fleetwood (personal) and Nate Lashley (foot) have pulled out of the tournament and won’t be replaced.
How the playoffs work
The top 125 players in the FedEx Cup points standings qualified for the first playoff event, this week’s FedEx St. Jude Championship. The field will be trimmed to the top 65 and ties after 36 holes. The top 70 on the points list after the final round at TPC Southwind will advance to the second leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, which will be played next week at the BMW Championship at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware.
Players are competing for essentially four times as many points as they did during official PGA Tour regular-season events (players received 600 points for winning The Players and the four majors and 550 for invitationals and WGC events). So the player who wins the FedEx St. Jude Championship will earn 2,000 points, which provides an opportunity for players far back in the standings to advance.
The BMW Championship is a no-cut event, and the top 30 in the points standings after that tournament will advance to the no-cut Tour Championship, which is scheduled for Aug. 25-28 at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.
How important is a player’s position in the points standings?
It could mean everything in a player’s quest for the FedEx Cup and the $18 million bonus that comes with winning it. For the fourth straight season, the Tour Championship will utilize a staggered, strokes-based scoring system. The player who is atop the points standings will begin the Tour Championship at 10 under, before he even hits a tee shot. The player who is in second starts at 8 under, third at 7 under, fourth at 6 under and fifth at 5 under.
Players who are sixth to 10th in the standings will start at 4 under, 11th to 15th at 3 under and 16th to 20th at 2 under. Those at 21st to 25th will start at 1 under and 26th to 30th at even par.
In the first season of the “starting strokes” format in 2019, Rory McIlroy was able to rally from a 5-stroke deficit at the start to win the FedEx Cup. But Dustin Johnson and Patrick Cantlay were winners the next two seasons after starting the Tour Championship as the points leaders.
What about the Presidents Cup?
One of the backstories of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, at least the biggest non-LIV Golf one, will be the Presidents Cup, which is scheduled for Sept. 20-25 at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The top six players in the Presidents Cup points standings after the BMW Championship will automatically qualify for the U.S. team. Scheffler, Cantlay, Sam Burns, Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas and Tony Finau are currently in the top six.
U.S. team captain Davis Love III will make six captain’s picks after the Tour Championship.
Jordan Spieth, Collin Morikawa, Max Homa, Will Zalatoris, Billy Horschel and rookie Cameron Young round out the top 12 and are within striking distance of cracking the top six with good showings in the playoffs.
International Team captain Trevor Immelman‘s job is a little more difficult. His team will consist of international players from countries outside of Europe, and two of the best players who fit that criteria — South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Mexico’s Abraham Ancer — defected to LIV Golf.
The top eight players in the Presidents Cup standings will make the International Team, and that list currently includes Cameron Smith, Hideki Matsuyama, Sungjae Im, Joaquin Niemann, Joohyung Kim, Corey Conners, Mito Pereira and Adam Scott.
The U.S. team has won eight straight and nine of the past 10 Presidents Cups (the teams tied in 2003). The International team’s lone victory in 13 matches came in Melbourne, Australia, in 1998. Under captain Tiger Woods, the U.S. team won 16-14 in the last Presidents Cup in Australia in 2019.
Will Scheffler hold on to No. 1?
Scheffler has been at the top of the FedEx Cup points standings and ranked No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking since his epic heater in the spring, when he won four times in six starts, culminating with his first major championship victory at the Masters.
Scheffler hasn’t won since, but he did finish second at the Charles Schwab Challenge and tied for second at the U.S. Open. He heads into the playoffs with a 1,221-point lead over Smith, who is probably his biggest challenger for PGA Tour Player of the Year.
Scheffler is certainly the favorite heading into the playoffs. He already has earned a single-season record $13.2 million in prize money and collected a $4 million bonus for finishing first in the Comcast Business Tour Top 10 and $1 million for winning the Aon Risk Reward Challenge.
“You know, it feels like I have been leading for a while,” Scheffler said. “I’ve had a big lead and I’m up by maybe 1,200 points or something like that, and I think now a win for some of those guys would help them pass me if I didn’t play so good this week. But I still have a pretty strong lead even with the points being magnified now in the playoffs, so if I continue to play good golf I should have a lead going into East Lake, which is definitely a good position to be in.”
Can Finau keep winning?
In an odd sort of way, Finau is the defending champion of the FedEx St. Jude Championship, even though he has never played in the event. Last season, Finau won the first leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs at The Northern Trust at Liberty National in Jersey City, New Jersey, and that history follows him to TPC Southwind.
The Northern Trust ended Finau’s more than five-year drought without a victory, and it propelled him to No. 1 in the FedEx Cup points standings for the first time in his career. He ended up tied for 11th after the 2021 Tour Championship.
He enters this year’s playoffs in seventh place, the highest position of his career, and he is coming off back-to-back victories, at the 3M Open and Rocket Mortgage Classic.
“I like being in the top 10 going into the FedEx Cup,” Finau said. “It’s a spot that I’ve never been in. Honestly, you probably want to be Scottie Scheffler right now. You are controlling the whole FedEx Cup. If he wins a playoff event, he’s going to be in control of the FedEx Cup, he’s going to have one hand on it, kind of relatively speaking. That would probably be the ideal position, but the way that the staggering score is set up now, I think if you’re in the top five, the top 10, you’re going to have a great chance to win the FedEx Cup.”
Above the line
Most of the PGA Tour’s biggest names are in comfortable positions to advance all the way to the Tour Championship. But a handful of familiar players have work to do at TPC Southwind this week to move on to the BMW Championship.
Matt Kuchar (No. 54), Harold Varner III (No. 58) and Marc Leishman (No. 62) are just above the cut for the top 70, while Gary Woodland (No. 73), Adam Scott (No. 77), Joel Dahmen (No. 80), Justin Rose (No. 94), Jason Day (No. 113) and Rickie Fowler (No. 125) will have to play well to move up. Speaking of Fowler, he has Cobra rep Ben Schomin on his bag this week and is no longer working with caddie Joe Skovron.