Punter’s pointers: Preview of the TOUR Championship

It’s the final event of the 2020/21 PGA Tour season, hosted as usual by East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia.

It's been quite a season.

A season of six Major Championships.

A season in which one of the stars (Will Zalatoris) wasn't eligible to play at the conclusion.

A season of first Major wins for Bryson DeChambeau, Hideki MatsuyamaJon Rahm and Collin Morikawa.

A season when (marvellously but ludicrously) the oldest-ever Major winner achieved that feat on the longest-ever Major course created (Phil Mickelson at Kiawah Island).

A season of boom and bust for Dustin Johnson.

A season of revivals: Stewart Cink won twice in his late 40s, Lee Westwood bloomed in the spring, Harris English broke his won drought in January and then another in June, Jordan Spieth rediscovered his mojo, and so (very briefly, at Quail Hollow) did Rory McIlroy.

And now it is nearly over.

Four rounds to go, in the TOUR Championship at East Lake. As the last two years there is a staggered start, with the best performers of the year (and especially the last two weeks, in the FedExCup Playoffs) getting an advantage.

Let's dig deeper.

The staggered scoring starting positions

10-under Patrick Cantlay

8-under Tony Finau

7-under Bryson DeChambeau

6-under Jon Rahm

5-under Cameron Smith

4-under Justin Thomas, Harris English, Abraham Ancer, Jordan Spieth, Sam Burns

3-under Collin Morikawa, Sungjae Im, Viktor Hovland, Louis OosthuizenDustin Johnson

2-under Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele, Jason Kokrak, Kevin Na, Brooks Koepka

1-under Corey Conners, Hideki Matsuyama, Stewart Cink, Joaquin Niemann, Scottie Scheffler

even Daniel Berger, Erik Van Rooyen, Sergio Garcia, Billy Horschel, Patrick Reed

Chasing the glory

The pre-tournament leader Cantlay is worth opposing. As brilliant as he was last week with the putter (he recorded the PGA Tour's best-ever Strokes Gained Putting numbers) he will a) have difficulty maintaining those heights, and b) especially so given he'll be on the East Lake greens.

Why so? Well, in three visits here he has never finished better than T20th and his putting stats are even worse. In a 30 man field he has ranked 20th, 29th and 30th for SG Putting, losing an average of four strokes per event.

Jon Rahm is seeking a first top five finish here, too (after four starts) - and he's never ranked in the top half of the field for Putting.

Bryson DeChambeau? No top five in three starts, tending to struggle tee to green, especially with approaches and around the greens.

Tony Finau? More of the same - four starts, no top five, and yet to rank top 10 for SG Tee to Green.

Cameron Smith then? Two starts: T20th and T22nd on the leaderboard, ranking 28th and 30th Off the Tee, a category that has tended to mean something on this course.

All that info makes the top five look extremely vulnerable.

Can Jordan Spieth emerge from those currently tied sixth?

He won here in 2015, was second on debut in 2013 and seventh in 2017.

He's twice ranked first for SG Putting and has also coped well with the test off the tee (unusually for him).

And here's what he has to say of the course: "You have a lot of uneven shots into these greens, you have a lot of uneven lies and it creates more feel. That's similar to Augusta and I think that's why I play well there even if I wasn't playing well going into it. The undulations on the green and in the fairway create a lot of a feel aspect that I enjoy."

Good vibes. Takes him to rein those leaders in and end his 2020/21 season on a high.

The fast starter

Rory McIlroy likes a Thursday in Atlanta.

He's played East Lake seven times and always gone sub-70 in round one.

His 66 in 2015 had him tied third, another 66 in 2019 had him tied second, and a 64 last year earned him a share of the lead.

He'll need to go low if he has any hope of landing the title and last week he carded a Thursday 64 for another share of the lead.

In posting 65-67 at the weekend he also showed that the form didn't fizzle away.

He's looking for a fifth first round lead in his last 25 starts - and that makes him value at the prices.

McIlroy to shoot the low score in round one - 14/1 with PaddyPower.

Going low

As briefly mentioned above, Strokes Gained Off the Tee has been a standout category in recent times at East Lake.

In fact, three of the last four normal winners ranked first for this category and all four were top six. Last year's winner Johnson was seventh and Xander Schauffele, who had the low score for 72-holes, was fifth.

That's great news for Norway's Viktor Hovland who ranked third in the category last week at Caves Valley and it is generally a part of the game he excels at (he's also been fourth for Driving Accuracy the last two weeks).

Why is it so important here? Let Gary Woodland explain: "You've got to drive the ball in the fairway here. The rough is so brutal, and the greens are so fast, it turns into a ball striker's paradise. If you drive it in play, you've got to find a way to keep the ball below the hole."

It's also true that so many of Hovland's best PGA Tour performances have come on Bermuda, or grainy, greens.

He's had wins in Puerto Rico and Mexico, plus top fives at Sedgefield, The Concession Club, Innisbrook and Quail Hollow.

He made a solid tournament debut 12 months ago, breaking par in three of his four rounds, ranking 10th Off the Tee and second for Approaches.

He starts 3-under for the week, can go low in quest of something special, and said last week: "I felt like I made a lot of progress with certain shots that I was trying to hit. Hit a lot of really nice iron shots to pins on the right side, where I had to hit cuts, and then I hit a couple of good shots into left pins, so it was good."

READ MORE: Europe seeking just a second win on American soil: Solheim Cup preview

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