By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief
NORTON – The PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs have been a Dustin and Justin Show also starring Jordan Spieth. Last week in New York, Dustin Johnson took the Northern Trust in a playoff over Spieth. Today, Justin Thomas outlasted a duo of challengers to win the Dell Technology Championship in the suburbs of Boston with Spieth finishing in second-place once again.
Thomas shot (-5) on a gorgeous Labor Day afternoon to finish (-17) to defeat Spieth by three strokes in the second leg of the playoffs, Thomas’ fifth win on tour this year.
The third round of playoffs, with the field cut to the top 70 players rather than the 96 who competed here, continues at the BMW Championship near Chicago in 10 days, after a weekend break to allow for the NFL’s opening weekend television ratings machine to dominate the sports landscape.
Spieth bogeyed the 12th, 14th and 18th hole today while Thomas bogeyed only the 11th hole this afternoon and the 5th during his opening round on Friday. Thomas played the newly re-designed and most difficult 12th hole even par all weekend to contribute to his season-long bid to be the PGA Tour Player of the Year. The two will battle it out as the FedEx Cup is down to only two more tournaments, in Chicago and the Tour Championship at East Lake GC in Atlanta.
“We still have two events left,” said Thomas to the assembled New England media crew. “I mean, I’m probably more excited than anything to get home and see one of my roommates, Tom Lovelady, who just got his PGA TOUR card. He gets home Tuesday night, and we’re going to have a little dinner, celebrate on Wednesday. I’m more excited to see him and just tell him congrats than I am to celebrate my own victory.”
Spieth still holds a slim lead in the complex FedEx Cup Playoff point totals, leading Thomas 5, 071 to 5,044. Johnson (who finished a disappointing T-18th today), Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and Spain’s Jon Rahm round-out the all-important Top 5 in points. A player in the Top 5 controls his own destiny and can win the $10 million purse with a win at the Tour Championship.
“I’m not going to be as down on myself as I was last week,” said Spieth after his second straight runenr-up finish. “I beat myself up – not beat myself up – but I was upset after last week, really having a good opportunity … it wasn’t the case today. I came out firing like I said we had to, and as we turned from No. 8 through 14 is the meat of the golf course, you want to get through that even. I got through over par and I didn’t get any coming in when I had hit some good putts.”
Spieth missed a putt on No. 17 by inches and settled for par as the green and pin placement played havoc with golfers all afternoon. That miss forced him to attempt a difficult chip on No. 18, and he hit it past the hole and over the sloped green. When Spieth carded the bogey, it allowed Thomas to play No. 18 with a par in mind to secure the three-shot victory, a $1.575 million check for his efforts and some serious incentive and confidence as he prepares for the final two tournaments of the 2016-17 golf season.
“So I just need to go home and get rested next week and get feeling fresh to play these last two events well,” said Thomas, shunning any talk of “world’s No. 1” or best golfer this or best at that, thus proving his wise stature on a tour full of living legends.
“Right now I’m just worried about getting rest. I’m tired. I’m excited to go home and sleep in my own bed. I feel as like I’ve been gone for so long. I guess it’s been 2 1/2 weeks. There was a lot of traveling. I had some media days and kind of took a trip beforehand, and then kind of took another trip in between here. So it was a lot of — a lot of traveling for just 2 1/2 weeks. So that stuff wears on you. So I’m excited to go home and not touch a club for a couple days and hang out with Tom and Bud and enjoy Florida. Hoping this hurricane (noting a Cat. 4 storm brewing in the Caribbean) doesn’t get us.
“I’m going to Chicago a little early and hang out,” said Thomas. “My girlfriend lives there. So — just go there and play some golf courses, and, then, yeah, once that week comes, then I’ll be hopefully ready to go.”
NORTON – The PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs swing into Boston with the 100 best players competing in the Dell Technologies Championship. Here’s a look at 10 to watch:
1. Dustin Johnson, United States — Following a major championship season that was hijacked when he sustained a back injury on the eve of the Masters, Johnson re-established himself as the best golfer in the world when he outplayed Jordan Spieth in the final round of The Northern Trust and captured the playoff opener with a birdie on the first playoff hole. He tightened his hold atop the Official World Golf Rankings and regained the lead in the FedExCup point standings heading into the second round of the playoffs. Johnson tied Justin Thomas for the lead with four victories this season and Rory McIlroy for the most in playoff history, also at four. Johnson is playing at TPC Boston for the eighth time. His best results were ties for fourth in 2009 and 2012, and he also tied for eighth last year, when a 4-over-par 75 in the third round kept him from challenging for the title.
2. Jordan Spieth, United States — It was shades of the 2016 Masters as Spieth couldn’t hold a five-stroke lead in the final round and lost to Johnson on the first playoff hole of The Northern Trust to open the playoffs. Still, he is No. 2 in the world rankings and second in the FedExCup standings, behind Johnson in both, with three victories, two seconds and two thirds this season on the PGA Tour. Had Spieth held on, he would have won for the third time in his last five starts and he will try to keep it going this week in the Dell Technologies Championship. The 2015 FedExCup champion is playing at TPC Boston for the fifth time and recorded his best result the first time he saw the place, when he closed with a 9-under-par 62 to tie for fourth, five strokes behind winner Henrik Stenson of Sweden. Surprisingly, he missed the cut two years ago before claiming the Cup a few weeks later by winning the Tour Championship.
3. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland — The defending FedExCup champion has captured the second event of the playoff twice at TPC Boston, including last year when he opened with an even-par 71 before reeling off scores of 67-66-65 to win by two strokes over Paul Casey of England. McIlroy was 38th in the point standings before his victory, which put him in position to win the Cup a few weeks later when he captured the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta. He is in a similar position at 43rd in the standings after finishing in a tie for 34th in The Northern Trust to open the playoffs last week. The fourth-ranked McIlroy claimed his first victory at TPC Boston in 2012, posting four scores in the 60s and coming from three shots back in the final round to win by one stroke over Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa. He also tied for fifth in 2014, but he has not been as sharp much of this season after sustaining a rib injury early in the year.
4. Jason Day, Australia — Playing some of his best golf in a season in which he has been slowed by injuries and family issues, Day has tied for ninth in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow and then tied for sixth in The Northern Trust. Those results doubled his total of top-10 finishes this season on the PGA Tour to four and lifted him to 29th in the FedExCup point standings with three weeks remaining until the finale at East Lake. The ninth-ranked Day is making his 10th start in what is now the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston and his best finish was a tie for second in 2013. He opened with 63-67-66 to take the lead into the final round before closing with an even-par 71 that left him in a tie for second, five shots behind Charley Hoffman, who ran away to win with a 62. Day also tied for third the following year and tied for seventh in 2014, among his seven top-20 results in the second event of the playoffs.
5. Rickie Fowler, United States — After being in the hunt through two rounds of The Northern Trust before shooting a 75, Fowler settled for a 20th-place tie after a closing 70 but remains in the chase at sixth in the FedExCup standings with three weeks left in the playoffs. He has to be looking forward to his return to TPC Boston, where he claimed his only playoff victory in the 2015 Deutsche Bank Championship. Fowler trailed by three strokes before sinking a 40-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole and took advantage of mistakes by Henrik Stenson down the stretch to win by one stroke with a closing 3-under-par 68. He is making his eighth start in the second playoff event, with a tie for 23rd in 2014, the only other time he cracked the top 25. Fowler, ranked 10th in the world, captured the Honda Classic earlier this year for his fourth victory on the PGA Tour and has nine results in the top 10 this season.
6. Justin Thomas, United States — The PGA champion backed up his first major victory with a tie for sixth in the playoff opener, The Northern Trust, last week. Despite a recent streak of three straight missed cuts, he is right in the middle of the FedExCup race with 10 finishes in the top 10 this season, including four victories. Thomas is third behind Johnson and Spieth in the point standings. Thomas, ranked sixth in the world, has broken 70 in seven consecutive rounds heading into the second event of the playoffs, the Dell Technologies Championship. He is playing at TPC Boston for the third time and has yet to get a feel for the course, tying for 56th two years ago before shooting 70-75 — 145 last year to miss the cut by four strokes. Thomas broke 70 for the only time in six rounds in the tournament when he shot 2-under-par 69 in round two last year.
7. Jon Rahm, Spain — With a tie for third in The Northern Trust in his playoff debut, four strokes out of the playoff, Rahm solidified his position in the FedExCup points race. Only a 2-under-par 72 in the third round kept him from possibly being with the leaders at the finish. The 22-year-old Spaniard snapped out of a recent slump with his eighth top-10 finish this season, including his first PGA Tour victory in the Farmers Insurance Open, again displaying a moxie far behind his years. Rahm, No. 5 in the world rankings, moved up one spot in the FedExCup standings to fifth and remains right in the thick of the chase heading toward the Tour Championship in three weeks at East Lake. He will face another new course this week in the second playoff event, the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston, but he has proven to be a quick study throughout his first season on the circuit.
8. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan — Despite a hiccup when he shot 74-69 — 143 to miss the cut by one stroke in The Northern Trust to open the playoffs by missing a short putt on the last hole, Matsuyama still is in position to be a force in the last three events of the FedExCup race. He slipped from first to fourth in the Cup standings, but still controls his own destiny with three events remaining in the playoffs. The third-ranked Matsuyama was coming off a four-event stretch in which he tied for second in the U.S. Open, tied for 14th in the Open Championship, won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and tied for fifth in the PGA Championship, so it would be unwise to count him out. Spieth missed the cut in the opener two years ago and went on to win the FedExCup. Matsuyama is making his fourth start at TPC Boston and seemed headed for a top-10 finish before closing with a 4-over 75 two years ago and tied for 25th, then tied for 15th last year.
9. Matt Kuchar, United States — Kuchar has a well-deserved reputation as a top-10 machine and he has done so four times recently. Those results include a solo second behind Spieth in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale last month and a tie for ninth in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow before he tied for 10th to open the playoffs in The Northern Trust. That run of success, giving him seven top-10s this season, has lifted Kuchar to a solid position of 15th in the FedExCup point standings and he also is 13th in the world rankings. Kuchar certainly is a contender with three weeks left in the playoffs, but at some point he will need to win for the first time since his seventh PGA Tour victory in the 2014 RBC Heritage. He will tee it up this week at TPC Boston for the 14th time and has six results in the top 25, the best a tie for fourth in 2013, and a tie for ninth in 2007.
10. Paul Casey, England — After finishing in solo fifth at The Northern Trust to open the playoffs, Casey climbed to 12th in the FedExCup point standings with his seventh result in the top 10 on the PGA Tour this season. He finished 26th in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, but that’s the only time he wound up out of the top 25 in his last 11 tournaments, and he certainly is flying under the radar with three playoff events remaining. Casey has climbed to 14th in the world rankings but will have to claim his first PGA Tour victory since the 2009 Shell Houston Open if he is going to be a bona fide contender in three weeks at the Tour Championship in Atlanta. He is making his fifth start at TPC Boston and last year carried the lead into the final round after posting three consecutive scores of 5-under-par 66, but he closed with a 73 to wind up solo second, two shots behind winner Rory McIlroy
OLD WESTBURY – (Staff and Wire Service Report from The Sports Xchange) – As the PGA Tour’s annual FedEx Cup Playoffs begin this week with the top 125 ranked pro golfers, we bring you the weekly “10 Players to Watch” at this week’s Northern Trust Open tournament, to be held in Westbury, Long Island:
1. Hideki Matsuyama, Japan — Even though Matsuyama did not become the first Japanese player to capture a major title after tying for fifth in the PGA Championship in his last start, he is playing as well as anyone in the world. He has finished no worse than a tie for 14th in the Open Championship in his last four starts, also tying for second in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills and winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational by four strokes when he closed with a 61. Matsuyama leads the FedExCup point standings heading into the playoffs, thanks to three victories this season — the other two in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China and the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Those are among his seven finishes in the top 10, including three runner-up results, and he has won seven times around the world in the last year. Matsuyama, ranked No. 2 in the world, is making his fourth start in the playoff opener, with his best result a tie for 13th in the 2015 Barclays. He is seeking his first playoff victory.
2. Jordan Spieth, United States — There was talk earlier in the year that the 2015 FedExCup champion was having a down season, but he has won three times, finished second once and third twice among eight finishes in the top 10 to sit third in the FedExCup standings. He tied for 13th in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and then tied for 28th in the PGA Championship while trying to complete the Career Grand Slam, but those results came after he won the Travelers Championship and the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in consecutive starts. Spieth, ranked third in the world, is making his fifth start in the playoff opener and recorded his best finish when he tied for 10th last year in the Barclays at Bethpage Black. His only victory in the playoffs came when he won the Tour Championship two years ago by four strokes over Danny Lee of New Zealand, Henrik Stenson of Sweden and Justin Rose of England to claim the FedExCup.
3. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland — After he tied for 22nd in the PGA Championship two weeks ago at Quail Hollow, McIlroy said he was considering taking the rest of the year off because of injuries that have made it difficult to practice on a regular basis since early this season. However, he committed to the Northern Trust late last week and will try to defend his FedExCup title even though he is only 44th in the point standings. Of course, one week can change that with the wild point swings that can take place during the playoffs, and he won the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Tour Championship last year en route to the title, giving him four PGA Tour playoff victories in his career. McIlroy hasn’t won since he prevailed at East Lake last year to wrap up the FedExCup, as his best finished this season on the U.S. tour are ties for fourth in the WGC-HSBC Champions, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Open Championship, among his six top-10 finishes and eight in the top 25.
4. Dustin Johnson, United States — Although he hasn’t been the same since he sustained a back injury on the eve of the Masters that knocked him out of the first major of the year, Johnson has been able to hold on to his No. 1 world ranking, but he has slipped from the top spot to No. 4 in the FedExCup point standings. He was unquestionably the best player in the world when he captured the Genesis Open, the WGC-Mexico Championship and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in his last three events before being injured, and he seems to be getting back on track. Johnson tied for eighth in the RBC Canadian Open, tied for 17th in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and tied for 13th in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in his last three starts. He is making his ninth start in the playoff opener and captured the 2011 Barclays by two strokes over Matt Kuchar at Plainfield Country Club in Edison, N.J., when the final round was postponed by the threat of Hurricane Irene.
5. Justin Thomas, United States — Following 10 days to celebrate his first major victory in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, Thomas should be ready to cap what already has been a career year by making a strong run in the PGA Tour playoffs. He has won four times this season after claiming only one victory in his first three seasons on the PGA Tour, and has risen to No. 2 in the FedExCup point standings and No. 7 in the world rankings. The PGA was Thomas’ first win since he captured the SBS Tournament of Champions and the Sony Open in Hawaii on consecutive weeks in January, but he has played well all season, with six other finishes in the top 10. He is making his third start in the playoff opener and has performed well in the other two, tying for 16th in the Barclays two years ago and tying for 10th in the tournament last year. Thomas’ best finish in the playoffs was a tie for sixth in the Tour Championship last year.
6. Henrik Stenson, Sweden — By ending a winless drought of more than a year when he captured the Wyndham Championship last week, Stenson climbed to 23rd in the FedExCup standings and to within striking distance at the start of the playoffs. The Big Swede claimed the Cup in 2013, when he won the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Tour Championship during the playoffs, and he has a chance to make another run at the title given the volatility of the point swings during the postseason. If anyone was paying attention, Stenson gave indications that was heating up after what had been a mediocre season for him, as he tied for 11th in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, tied for 17th in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and tied for 13th in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in his previous three starts before claiming his 20th pro victory. He is No. 6 in the world and is making his seventh start in the opener, with his best result solo second two years ago at Plainfield in New Jersey.
7. Rickie Fowler, United States — Playing some of the best golf of his career, Fowler comes in the FedExCup playoff on a roll, with his worst result in his last five starts a tie for 22nd in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. His other four finishes were a tie for fifth in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, a tie for third in the Quicken Loans National, solo ninth in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and a tie for fifth in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. With nine results in the top 10 on the PGA Tour this season, he is fifth in the point standings heading into the playoffs and is ranked No. 10 in the world. Fowler is making his eighth start in the playoff opener, formerly known as the Barclays, and finished in the top 10 in three of the last four years, with ties for ninth in 2013 and 2014, and a tie for seventh last year. He won the Deutsche Bank Championship during the 2015 playoffs, beating Henrik Stenson by one shot.
8. Jason Day, Australia — Having fallen to No. 9 in the world in what to this point has been a forgettable season because of injuries and family issues, Day can salvage things with a strong run in the FedExCup playoffs. He was No. 1 in the world rankings at the start of the year, but has slipped to No. 9, although he finished second in the AT&T Byron Nelson, tied for fifth in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and tied for ninth in his last start in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. Day, who is 49th in the FedExCup standings, will make his 10th in the playoff opener and has finished in the top 10 on four occasions, including each of the last three years. Included was a six-stroke victory over Henrik Stenson two years ago, when he closed with 63-62 at Plainfield, and a tie for second in 2014, one stroke behind Hunter Mahan. Day also won the BMW Championship by six shots over Daniel Berger during the 2015 playoffs.
9. Brooks Koepka, United States — The U.S. Open champion has continued to play well since winning at Erin Hills, tying for sixth in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, tying for 17th in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and tying for 13th in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. His six top-10 results this season on the PGA Tour, including runner-up finishes in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and the Valero Texas Open, put him seventh in the FedExCup point standings and 12th in the world rankings entering the playoffs this week. Koepka is playing in the postseason opener for only the third time, having shot 72-73 — 145 to miss the cut by three strokes in 2015, before finishing in a tie for 70th last year, but he is a different player at this point. His best result in the playoffs was a tie for 18th in the 2015 Tour Championship and he figures to make it back to the finale at East Lake in Atlanta again, with a chance to win the FedExCup this time.
10. Patrick Reed, United States — When he tied for second in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow two weeks ago, Reed finally played again like the guy who won five times on the PGA Tour in recent years. His most recent victory came in the playoff opener last year, then the Barclays, when he held off Sean O’Hair and Emiliano Grillo by one stroke at Bethpage Black. Reed tied for fifth the next week in the Deutsche Bank Championship on his way to finishing seventh in the FedExCup race after a tie for 24th in the Tour Championship. He has some work to do in order to get back to the finale at East Lake in Atlanta because he is 38th in the point standings and only 30 qualify for the last event. Reed hasn’t been all that far off this season with 12 finishes in the top 25, but he will have to bring his “A” game to the playoffs if he wants to get back into the conversation during the postseason
OLD WESTBURY (LONG ISLAND, NY) – (SPECIAL TO DIGITAL SPORTS DESK BY THE SPORTS XCHANGE) – If the FedExCup playoffs are anything like the PGA Tour’s regular season, golf fans are in for quite a ride.
When Justin Thomas claimed his first major title two weeks ago in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, it was his fourth victory of the season. That moved him ahead of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, second-ranked Hideki Matsuyama of Japan and third-ranked Jordan Spieth, who all have three PGA Tour victories in 2016-17.
The last time four players won three or more times in a season on the circuit was in 2003, when Tiger Woods led the way with five titles.
The fearsome foursome will be trying to add to their totals this week in the Northern Trust, the first of four legs in the FedExCup playoffs at the Glen Oaks Club in Old Westbury, N.Y.
Spieth, third in the point standings, is the only one of the four who has hoisted the Cup following the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. He did so by earning a four-stroke win in the 2015 finale.
After finishing in a tie for 28th in his bid to become the sixth player to complete the modern Career Grand Slam at Quail Hollow, Spieth said he will be ready after a week off to make another run for the title during the playoffs.
“These two weeks take a lot out of you,” said Spieth, who is third in the FedExCup point standings after finishing in the top 10 on eight occasions this season. “It was hot. We had delays. They were long days. World Golf Championship and a major championship mentally is draining whether you are in contention or not.
“Definitely going to have some recovery going in (to the playoffs). I’m going to approach the first two events trying to obviously win but looking to kind crescendo into East Lake and peak there, and consider East Lake a major at this point as far as our preparation goes.”
Spieth knows that any player in the top five entering the Tour Championship would claim the FedExCup with a victory at East Lake.
A day earlier after the third round of the final major of the season, with his PGA hopes dashed, Spieth was already looking ahead to the playoffs when he said:
“This is only the start of the fourth quarter.”
Johnson rose to No. 1 in the world by winning three times early in the season before sustaining a back injury on the eve of the Masters. He was unable to play at Augusta National before missing the cut in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills. He tied for 54th in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale and tied for 13th in the PGA Championship.
Johnson slipped from the lead in the point standings to No. 4, but he knows he can make up for it in the playoffs.
“The next six weeks are big: the four playoff events and Presidents Cup,” said Johnson, who maintains he is healthy. “I enjoy playing Presidents Cup. I’m looking forward to it. I need to take a few days to relax, and then it’s time to get back at it.
“I feel like the game is coming around. It’s starting to feel a lot better. Got confidence in it. Definitely rolled the putter a little bit better today. It’s close to being really good. It’s close to being really good. I’m looking forward to the playoffs.”
Matsuyama, who captured the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational by five shots a week earlier when he closed with a 61, was disappointed with his tie for fifth in the PGA. He is still trying to become the first Japanese player to win a major.
However, he takes the FedExCup points lead into the playoffs and should be a force to be reckoned with.
“I haven’t won a major yet,” said Matsuyama, who has won seven times around the world since last October. “I have a lot of work left to do, but that’s not to say that I don’t have confidence.”
The FedExCup could almost make up for that missing major.
Thomas has been enjoying his first two weeks with the Wanamaker Trophy after his two-stroke victory at Quail Hollow, but he figures to be ready when he hits the first tee on Thursday.
While celebrating his PGA victory, he already was thinking about the playoffs. Thomas is second in the point standings.
“You know, we’re getting to the end of the year,” Thomas said during his press conference after the final major of the year. “We’re getting to crunch time and the FedExCup and the playoffs, and this puts me in a lot better position than I was before the week started.
“I’m just excited for that, I’d say more than anything.”
Others in the top 10 of the point standings are Rickie Fowler, rookie Jon Rahm of Spain, U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, Daniel Berger, Kevin Kisner and Brian Harman.
Henrik Stenson of Sweden, the 2013 FedExCup champion, also is a player to watch after he claimed the Wyndham Championship last week for his first victory since the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon. He jumped to No. 23 in the standings.
The only real question mark is defending FedExCup champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, who was 44th in the standings last week. He considered sitting out the rest of the year because of injuries but committed to the Northern Trust late last week.
With or without McIlroy, the season figures to end with an exclamation point