Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 7, 2017

At TPC Boston, More Than One Winner

When the PGA Tour’s Dell Technologies Championship, the second of four events that comprise the season-ending FedEx Cup Playoffs, played out over the sprawling eighteen holes of TPC Boston during Labor Day weekend, much of the coverage and most of the thousands in attendance understandably focused on the battle for the winner’s check of $1.575 million and the 2,000 FedEx Cup points that accompany it.

That contest went to 24-year old Justin Thomas, who overcame a slow start – he managed only an even par 71 in Friday’s first round – before playing his way into Monday’s final pairing with scintillating play on the weekend. Thomas played bogey-free golf on Saturday and Sunday, recording four birdies in his second round 67 and then setting a record for the FedEx Cup playoffs by returning a scorecard with a dozen threes on it for the third round. That included eight birdies, all on par-4s, that gave Thomas a score of 63 despite having played the par-5s in just even par.

At 12-under par Thomas shared the 54-hole lead and Monday afternoon’s final tee time with Australian Marc Leishman. They were one stroke ahead of Paul Casey and two clear of Jordan Spieth, who made up the penultimate group. That meant the eventual winner had a prime view as first Spieth and then Leishman tore up TPC Boston’s front nine. With three birdies and an eagle the former went 5-under on the first four holes to claim the lead early in the final round. But he was soon overtaken by Leishman, who like Spieth needed just 30 strokes to reach the turn. At that point Thomas, whose normally fine 32 on the front side seemed merely workmanlike compared to what the other two were doing, found himself tied with his good friend Spieth and two behind Leishman.

The back nine is the sterner test on a course that has been reshaped several times since it opened in 2003, and that is where the Dell was decided. Spieth was 2-over on the inward half, finding trouble when his approach shots began going consistently well right of his intended target. Leishman struggled even more, dropping five shots to par in a closing 40. Among the leaders only Thomas mastered TPC Boston’s final nine holes, sinking birdie putts at the 13th and 15th to offset a lone bogey at the par-3 11th. The result was a closing 66, good for a 17-under total and a comfortable three shot victory.

Less than a year ago, to the extent he was known at all Justin Thomas was the poster boy for Ralph Lauren golf clothing, with one PGA Tour win to his name. On Labor Day he won his fifth event of the season, a number that includes his first major at last month’s PGA Championship. Along the way Thomas shot a 59 at the Sony Open in Hawaii last January, and set a new record for lowest score in relation to par at the U.S. Open with a 9-under par 63 at Erin Hills in June. With two tournaments left to play Dustin Johnson with four wins and Spieth who also has four including a major, are still in the running for Player of the Year. But either probably needs to win in Chicago or Atlanta or claim the FedEx Cup to overtake Thomas, who is now known for a lot more than high-end clothing, for the honor.

As much as he was the center of attention for the week and even the entire PGA Tour season, Justin Thomas’s was not the only story of note coming out of the play at TPC Boston. Between the playoff format of steadily shrinking fields and the deadline for qualifying for both the U.S. and International teams for the upcoming Presidents Cup matches, golfers with no shot at winning the Dell still had much to play for.

The field of one hundred at TPC Boston shrinks to just seventy for the BMW Championship, and only the top thirty in FedEx Cup points go on from there to the Tour Championship. Fan favorite Bubba Watson started the week in 72nd place, and appeared to have squandered any chance of continuing his season when he stunned fans by hurriedly missing a short par putt at the end of his second round. The closing bogey left him at 3-over, seemingly one shot outside the cut line. But as the final groups finished up the cut bumped up by one. Given a reprieve Watson failed to utilize it, losing two more strokes to par over the final two rounds. His finish far back in the pack actually dropped him three spots in the FedEx Cup standings, ending his season.

Three other players were more fortunate. Stewart Cink, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, and Emiliano Grillo all moved into the top seventy based on their performances at the Dell. Looking ahead to the Tour Championship, Patrick Reed, Gary Woodland, and Bill Haas all moved into the top thirty, at the expense of Xander Schauffele, Charles Howell III, and Sergio Garcia. But at least those three have one more week to improve their lot, unlike Watson or the three players knocked out of the BMW’s field by Cink, Cabrera-Bello, and Grillo.

The 22nd place finish by the young Argentinian Grillo, largely on the strength of a final round 66, also caught the attention of Nick Price, captain of the International squad for the Presidents Cup. The ten automatic qualifiers for the two Presidents Cup teams are determined by cumulative FedEx Cup points earned over a two-year period, with current year points counting double.  His Dell result moved Grillo to 11th in the final International team standings. On Wednesday Price named Grillo as one of his two captain’s choices for the matches to be played at Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey at the end of the month.

U.S. team captain Steve Stricker was also a close observer of the play at the Dell. Charley Hoffman began the week holding the last automatic spot for the Americans, but wound up even par for the tournament, in a tie for 47th. Kevin Chappell finished two shots better, in a tie for 35th. Once the Dell’s results were final and the event’s points distributed, Chappell edged Hoffman by less than a point.

Poor Charley was left to deal with that disappointment for less than 48 hours, before Stricker made him one of his two captain’s picks. With his other selection the U.S. skipper tapped Phil Mickelson. This will be the 23rd consecutive appearance for Lefty in the two biennial team competitions, the Presidents and Ryder Cups. Without a PGA Tour victory since his win at the 2013 Open Championship, Mickelson might have been a more controversial pick prior to the Dell. But at TPC Boston he turned in four solid rounds in the 60s, finishing in a tie for 6th at 11-under par.

It was a result good enough to give Stricker all the justification he needed to put the veteran on the team. Justin Thomas may have been the obvious winner last weekend, but he was by no means the only one. Mickelson and several others may not have lifted the tournament’s Wedgewood jasperware trophy, but they had plenty of reasons to smile as they left TPC Boston.

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