Rory McIlroy, a 23-year-old professional from Holywood, Northern Ireland, is playing the best golf of his life. He has won his last two consecutive tournaments on the PGA Tour, three of his last four, and is #1 in the official world golf rankings (OWGR). All of this raises the question of whether anyone can beat Rory in the 2012 TOUR Championship?
The TOUR Championship will be played September 20-23rd, at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. The field includes the top 30 players on the PGA Tour in 2012*, 22 of whom have claimed victory this season and are certainly capable of winning again. It has been more than four years since any golfer has won three consecutive Tour events**. The answer, of course, is “Yes”, someone other than McIlroy can certainly win.
This is one fan’s list of the top five challengers, four of whom have previously won the TOUR Championship at East Lake (TCEL), plus the holder of the course record:
5. Adam Scott: A career eight-time Tour winner, #5 on the OWGR, Scott has not won in 2012. He has, however, been in the top three twice (including the British Open), and has finished in the top seven in each of his last two events. Adam Scott is on this list because of his 2006 victory in the TCEL.
4. Zach Johnson: A professional since 1998, Johnson has won nine times on the PGA Tour. Since April of 2012, he has two wins and two runner-up finishes. Sometimes, the ability to post one very low round is the key to victory. I have selected Zach Johnson, because he posted a 10-under par score of 60 in the third round in 2007, the 18-hole record for the TCEL. With another 60, in the third round of the 2009 Texas Open, he is the only player in PGA Tour history to have posted scores of 60 or better twice.
3. Jim Furyk: A 42-year-old native of Pennsylvania, Furyk has 16 career wins on the PGA Tour. In eight previous appearances in the TCEL, with four top-seven finishes, he hoisted the winner’s trophy in 2010. With a 72-hole average of 275.88, Furyk is the only player on this list to have never finised over par in the TOUR Championship, at East Lake. One more victory would place Jim Furyk in the top 50 all-time on the PGA Tour. Maybe that is the extra incentive needed.
2. Tiger Woods: The most discussed golfer of the last two decades. Golf fans seem to either love him or hate him. What cannot be denied is that Woods has claimed 74 PGA Tour victories (second all-time to Sam Snead’s 82), 14 major championships (second to Jack Nicklaus’ 18), and is currently #2 on the OWGR (second to Rory McIlroy). He holds the 72-hole record for the TCEL, winning in 2007 with a 23-under par score of 257. He also has four second place finishes at East Lake. When paired head-to-head with Rory McIlroy, in 2012, Tiger Woods has posted the lower score in six out of eight rounds played. To win, he needs to play better than McIlroy when they are not paired together (or hope they are together in every round).
1. Phil Mickelson: With four professional major championships, plus the 1990 U.S. Amateur, Mickelson is the most successful left-handed golfer of all time. He claimed his 40th PGA Tour win at Pebble Beach, in February of 2012, and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May. Posting a 72-hole total of 270 in each of his last two events, finishing fourth in the Deutsche Bank Championship and second in the BMW Championship (two shots behind McIlroy), he has risen to #4 in FedEx Cup points. Phil Mickelson is the only two-time winner of the TOUR Championship, at East Lake, having hoisted the trophy in both 2000 and 2009.
Prediction: On Sunday, September 23rd, Rory McIlroy will finish in the top three, but it will be Phil Mickelson hoisting his third TOUR Championship trophy and his first FedEx Cup.
* Top 30 in the FedEx points standings.
** The Arnold Palmer Invitational, in March of 2008, was Tiger Woods’ fifth consecutive PGA Tour victory.
Harold Andrews has played golf for nearly 50 years. He considers Jack Nicklaus the greatest of all time.