Course specialist Schauffele to defy the handicapper


3pts each-way Xander Schauffele @ 15/2
2pts win Patrick Cantlay @ 7/2
1pt each-way Jon Rahm @ 14/1

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We’re paying FIVE places at the Tour Championship!

A $75m bonus pool and an $18m jackpot for the winner is no laughing matter but someone should tell the PGA Tour that the big FedEx Cup showdown in Atlanta this week is not far short of a joke.

Finding a format which guaranteed that the 30-runner Tour Championship at East Lake and the season-long FedEx Cup points race would produce the same winner – after the 2017 and 2018 editions did not – was a tidy idea but seriously flawed.

The solution they came up with – to reward those at the top of with extra shots and give those at the foot nothing – virtually rules out the prospect of an outsider springing a surprise and reduces the list of potential winners to, at most, six. The other 24 will admittedly be well paid (even the last man gets $500,000) but as a TV spectacle it runs the risk of being a crashing bore.

Guess who won the last two? The lucky guys in pole position at No. 1 on the FedEx rankings going into it, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Cantlay. They qualified for the maximum 10 ‘starter strokes’ (as they are quaintly termed) and didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Admittedly in its first year under the changed conditions Rory McIlroy played such outstanding golf that even though he started five behind leader Justin Thomas he swamped JT and everybody else. But subsequenty the best player – i.e. the man who shot the lowest number of shots over 72 holes – didn’t win.

In 2020 that was Xander Schauffele; last year Jon Rahm and Kevin Na jointly. Yet with Cantlay teeing off respectively four and eight shots ahead of them, they could not quite reel him in, even though he struggled for much of the final afternoon. Fair? No.

Critical of the system before the event, the winner did not back-track afterwards, saying: “Frankly, I don’t think it’s a good format but it was actually to my benefit this week. For that, I am very grateful.” Fifteen million times grateful.

Now comes the crunch. Will Cantlay follow up being the first back-to-back BMW winner in FedEx history by being the first back-to-back winner of the competition itself? If he can, ‘Patty Ice’ will add $18m, the increased first prize, to last year’s $15m haul.

Not even Tiger Woods could do that but the first and most famous FedEx winner remains one of only two double winners, along with McIlroy, in the 15-year history of the PGA Tour’s end-of-term giveaway.

The sliding scale of “starter strokes” for the final 30 sees the No. 1 on the points table, Scottie Scheffler, rewarded with an extra ten shots, the No. 2 Cantlay gets eight, No. 3 Will Zalatoris seven, No. 4 Schauffele six, No. 5 Sam Burns five and so on, down to numbers 26 to 30 who get nothing at all and are simply scrapping for the tasty morsels at the bottom of the money tree.

It’s a similar principle to F1 where the fastest in practice gets pole; here the best is handed a two-shot edge over the next-best and up to ten over the minnows at the bottom – totally opposite to horse racing where the most talented have to concede weight so that, in theory, all the runners finish level and we get thrilling finishes.

To use the opposite method is daft. Last year’s “winner” Cantlay, starting ten up after his BMW triumph, didn’t play the best golf because, on gross scores, Jon Rahm (6), Kevin Na (2) and Schauffele (2) shot a lower number, but won anyway.

It was the same story in 2020: back-marker Dustin Johnson scored 269 with a 10 start but it was second-placed Schauffele with 265 (but only 3) who would have won in a “normal” week.

The only one to buck the system was 2019 hero McIlroy (off 5) who started five back of Justin Thomas (10) but swamped him by ten, as well as the other trio ahead at the start.

He had to take East Lake apart to do it. And legendary Bobby Jones’s venerable home course, now a 7346-yard par 70, has always been a serious test of golf, demanding straight driving and, in particular, spot-on approach play. This year McIlroy is off 4 and even further back. He will need to putt far more convincingly than he did in Delaware if he is to get a sniff.

For Cantlay, this time it’s different. Instead of being in the driving seat, he’s playing catch-up, this BMW victory only taking him to second spot on the points table. And with the double-double the week’s big talking point, he will be more in the spotlight than he may care to be.

Yet which rival is in better form? A fourth and eighth in Scotland, a second in Detroit, an overdue first solo victory of the year in Delaware (although he did win the Zurich pairs event with his chum Schauffele) – it all reads so well.

Only that last-round meltdown at the Travelers when we all lumped on him and a down-the-field effort at St Jude stand on the debit ledger but it’s been another great year for this quietly cool dude who loves competing and is understandably a big fan of East Lake.

He, rather than favourite Scheffler, is surely the man to beat. Scottie owes the No. 1 spot to his dazzling spring form. It has been far patchier in recent months with missed cuts at the Travelers and Scottish Open. Fair enough, third place at the BMW was a timely tune-up but his putting was suspect and there were more loose shots than when he was making the game look so easy.

Fifth  on his Tour Championship bow two years ago but only 22nd last year, there has to be a danger that being gifted a start over inferior rivals brings its own special pressure – that of being EXPECTED to win. As McIlroy said: “It’s more a psychological thing … starting at a different position than the rest of the field”.

Scheffler is so laid back he might just take off and run away with it but if the top seed takes it too easy and Cantlay cracks under the extra pressure, the man to pick up the pieces is course specialist Schauffele, my each-way banker at 15/2.

Just look at what he has achieved at East Lake: 2017 – Winner, 2018 – 7th, 2019 – 2nd, 2020 – 2nd, 2021 – 5th (those last two figures would read 1st and 3rd but for the pesky handicapping format).

In Xander you have an East Lake master in cracking current form (1st Travelers, 1st Scottish Open, 15th Open, 3rd BMW) … starting off 6 means giving two to Cantlay and four to Scheffler – a tough ask but on course expertise he could be up to it.

Zalatoris had to withdraw with a lower back problem on Saturday and forfeited top spot so is hard to support on debut while Burns was only 18th last year and doesn’t seem in quite good enough form to trouble the quartet above him in the handicap.

McIlroy, of course, is capable of great things but more appealing, considering his 132 at the BMW was the low 36 of the weekend, is Rahm whose putting is now back on track.

Starting back on 3, it will take a gargantuan effort by the Spaniard even to get into the mix but at 14/1 this course-proven former world No. 1 is trending the right way (fifth and eighth in the first two playoffs) and will love the challenge of coming from so far back and creating an upset.

Recent dual winner Tony Finau can hardly be discounted even from six back but Cameron Smith missed the BMW citing hip trouble and looks a risky investment in what may be the LIV-bound Aussie’s PGA Tour swansong. The Open champion certainly wouldn’t be the most popular winner!

Prepare for some weather delays with thunder forecast for three of the four days.

The full line-up, with stroke allocations: Scheffler 10, Cantlay 8, Zalatoris 7, Schauffele 6, Burns 5, Smith 4, McIlroy 4, Finau 4, Straka 4, Im 4, Rahm 3, Thomas 3, Fitzpatrick 3, Young 3, Stallings 3, Spieth 2, Homa 2, Matsuyama 2, Niemann 2, Hovland 2, Morikawa 1, Horschel 1, Hoge 1, Conners 1, Harman 1, Scott 0, KH Lee 0, Poston 0, Theegala 0, Wise 0.


1.5pts each-way Richie Ramsay @ 33/1
1.5pts each-way Renato Paratore @ 40/1
1pt each-way Rasmus Hojgaard @ 25/1
0.5pt each-way Rory Sabbatini @ 50/1
0.5pt each-way Sean Crocker @ 33/1

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We’re a mile high in the Swiss Alps this week for the European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre, one of the best-looking golf courses on the circuit – where else can you get views of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc? – and a popular tour stop since the end of World War II.

Toughened up by Seve Ballesteros, it no longer produces the spectacularly low scores of the last century – 60s weren’t unheard of, Sky commentator Jamie Spence shot one to get into a 1992 playoff which he went on to win, a turn-up that went down like a lead balloon as I had tipped his victim, Anders Forsbrand.

It’s a short, quirky little track full of trees in awkward places – and it takes a bit of knowing. With the ball going at least 10% further in the rarefied air, club selection is key and the European Masters has produced some unlikely winners, players who never won anywhere else.

Who now remembers Canadian Jerry Anderson, Chris Moody, Jeff Hawkes or Jean-Francois Lucquin, all Crans champions of the past? Anderson shot a mind-boggling 27 under in 1984, still the European Masters record, but nobody shoots those sort of scores since the Ballesteros makeover.

More recently, Sweden’s Sebastian Soderberg opened his Euro-account there in 2019 and is still looking for win No. 2. But there have been plenty of winning favourites too, the likes of Seve himself three times, Ernie Els, Monty and Lee Westwood.

Reigning US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick is a dual Crans winner – the 6828-yard par 70 was perfect for him in the old days when he didn’t hit it far and relied on his short-game wizardry – and while Richie Ramsay isn’t in Fitzpatrick’s class he’s the type of sound, gutsy all-rounder punters should be looking for.

There was no stopping the Scot when he dotted up by four in 2012 and he was twice a top-ten Crans finisher after that. The 39-year-old’s recent victory at Hillside in the Cazoo Classic followed a third at the British Masters and 13th in Munich so he should be relishing a return to a course that holds such great memories for him.

Moreover, this canny old Aberdonian won’t be fazed by the distinctly unfriendly weekend forecast for thunder and lightning as some of the younger generation will.

Two who shared 13th place in Prague are again on my shopping list as they played well behind shock 55/1 winner Max Kieffer, the German who was breaking his duck at the 249th attempt, and might have got closer had the rain-lashed tournament not been reduced to 54 holes.

First up, Olympic silver medalist Rory Sabbatini, six times a PGA Tour winner in his heyday and at 46 still capable at this modest level. A streak player, he can reel off a riot of birdies when he gets a taste for it.

More justifiably because he’s on a great roll after a bleak first half of the year, Renato Paratore is a Crans fan with two top-tens and a 12th on this picturesque course. Before that Czech Masters 13th, the lanky Italian had posted a third in Wales and fourth in Northern Ireland. He needs following until the magic wears off.

The talented Danish Hojgaard twins are in action with Rasmus defending the title he won last year after a battle with Bernd Wiesberger. He and ambitious Scot Bob MacIntyre have not achieved as much as was expected of them this year but there’s still time and Hojgaard’s tenth at the Scottish Open came against far stronger opposition than he faces this week.

Expect both to put in a good shift along with 6ft 6in Pole Adrian Meronk, a tour winner at last, New Zealander Ryan Fox who looks like winning almost every time he plays but often seems to beat himself and classy Frenchman Victor Perez, regarded as Ryder Cup material a couple of years ago and anxious to get into the conversation for the next one in Rome.

But for my final pick I’ll go with Sean Crocker, a first-time winner at the Hero Open last month. The American had a chance at Crans last year when fourth to Hojgaard. With his new-found self-belief, he could finish the job this time.

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