The Monday finish to the Northern Trust was unconventional, but then this is an unconventional program.
Professional golfers are used to one thing: at the end of the day, someone gets a trophy. That is, whoever finishes first wins. Pretty simple. But in the FedEx Cup playoffs, no matter how hard the designers try, it’s never simple. It’s ambiguous.
The leaderboard at the Northern Trust, as it will be at the BMW Championship later this week, was only half the story. Yes, someone finished first, someone won. And yes, Tony Finau took home first-place money for the effort, a cool $1.7 million.
But there’s more to the story, and more to a leaderboard in a FedEx Cup playoff. There are parting gifts, as well. At the end of the day, the picture is bigger. Where a player stands in the FedEx Cup playoffs pool is just as relevant. The top 70 on the latter leaderboard — some of whom are not even playing — move to the next stop, the BMW Championship at Caves Valley on Thursday.
In that tournament, the fact Colin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson missed the cut and played lousy at Liberty National isn’t what it seems. They all advanced to Caves Valley, maybe a little worse for wear confidence-wise, but advancing nonetheless.
On the other hand, Ian Poulter and Joel Dahmen, who played reasonably well in New York, finishing 8-under and tied for 31st, did not advance, nor did Brandt Snedeker, who was T47. Thanks for coming, fellas.
PGA Tour players go along with this, what else might they do? After all, the Tour floods the whole thing with money. For instance, Rory McIlroy has made more than $40 million in his career from competing in the FedEx Cup playoffs alone. But not all of the combatants are thrilled with the setup.
"I don't like it. I don't think it's fair," said Rahm after Friday’s second round. Not sure Rahm likes it any better now, after he tumbled from the lead late on Monday.
The unconventional final round in the unconventional environment reached a rather unconventional conclusion, Frankly the last men standing — Finau and Cameron Smith — were unexpected guests. Since his 8-under 63 last Thursday, Rahm seemed to have a stranglehold on the affair. He slept with the lead for four nights. He stood in the harbor like Lady Liberty herself, holding up the Northern Trust trophy, a beacon to those who would seek the $15 million FedEx purse.
But Rahm, who made headlines by making big putts at the U.S. Open, missed a big one at No. 15. Suddenly, in Rahm we no longer could trust. And when fell on his sword with a bogey at No. 18, the Spanish conquistador was done. For 69 holes, Rahm certified himself as the “Player of the Year.” Three holes later it was up for grabs. Doesn’t seem fair, but …
“It just hurts to think about it a little bit too much,” Rahm said, before adding, “… You know, short turnaround, one more week next week to finish as high as possible for the FedEx Cup for Atlanta, which is the goal.”
Instead, Liberty looked to Finau and Smith. Both made key birdies down the stretch to force the playoff event into a sudden-death playoff on a wet, receptive golf course. Turns out, it was a playoff in name only. Smith, who shot a course-record 60 on Saturday, hit his first tee shot of the overtime out of bounds, while Finau split the fairway. Game over.
The 31-year old Finau shot a final-round 65 to win his first PGA Tour event since the 2016 Puerto Rico Open. That’s five years and 143 starts between trophies, if you’re counting. Finau is a popular player with fans and colleagues alike. He has paid lots of dues, ascended the ranks gradually and established a regular spot on the “players to watch” lists.
“All I know is I'm a lot different player than I was then," Finau said, referring back to his first win. “I’m a lot better player and I feel like it's been a long time coming but I also feel like you have to earn everything out here. Nothing's given to you and I was able to earn this win, and you know, hopefully the future continues to be bright.
“I'm playing great golf. I feel like I can go on a run, so why not continue right on to next week."
Finau’s victory in the Northern Trust not only filled his bank account, and filled his spirit, it helped legitimize an unconventional day in this unconventional format. At the same time, Rahm was No. 5 in the FedEx Cup standings when the tournament started; he moved up to No. 2 for the BMW. Smith was No. 16 last week; he’ll be No. 3 when he tees off at Caves Valley on Thursday.
“That's why we're here, we're here for the FedEx Cup,” Smith said. “Luckily for us there's always next week, and we've got two events left to try to make another move, so I'm looking forward to it.
In the FedEx Cup playoffs, things are never quite as simple as they seem.