Late-season golf: it matters, baby!

Or at least that’s what the US PGA Tour would like you to believe. As much as the players and the fans might crave an actual offseason – and as much as player participation and TV ratings might indicate that, well, there kinda is an offseason – professional golf now circumnavigates the calendar. As I write this, Chez Reavie is leading a sanctioned event in South Korea. Next week, the stars will be out in Shanghai. And from Malaysia to Mexico to Vegas to the Barrier Islands of Georgia, the tour rolls on after the “big” tournaments late in the northern summer have come and gone.

The harsh question is, why should we care?

Well, for one, the powers-that-be have done a solid job of attracting stars to a few of the events. Justin Thomas won last year’s inaugural CJ Cup in Korea and is back to defend, bringing along the PGA Tour Player of the Year, Brooks Koepka, with him. And Jordan Spieth just announced that he’ll play the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas in two weeks.

Spieth’s example is instructive. Two years ago, the tour implemented a policy that required members to play in a minimum of 25 events unless they had in their schedule a tournament that they had not played in the previous four years. Spieth did not add a new event in 2018, and by missing the Tour Championship by a hair, he finished with 24 starts. Rather than face a fine or suspension, he and the tour seem to have come to a “resolution” that is technically secret, but offers a very possible explanation for his commitment to Vegas. It will be first autumn tour event he plays in the US in his professional career, and he probably wouldn’t be there if he had made the Tour Championship.

Putting aside the appeal of the late-year swing, and the tour’s clever ways of ensuring participation, there’s a bigger narrative to contend with: the idea that success in the northern autumn can jumpstart a player’s season, and potentially even establish a spot in the top 30 on the FedEx Cup points list that carries through to the Tour Championship 10 or so months later.

If that’s true, then sure, it’s a great argument for why the ‘fall’ matters. It would be like telling an AFL team that if they play really well for the month of April, they can secure a spot in the finals. It adds a tonne of significance – if you care about the Tour Championship, the narrative goes, then it’s wise to also care about the beginning of the season.

Does the narrative hold up? On the surface, the simple answer is yes: most fall events are worth 500 points to the winner, just like a normal mid-season event. (The exceptions are the WGC–HBSC Champions, worth 550 points, and the Sanderson Farms Championship, played that same week and worth 300.) So if a player won in Malaysia, Korea, Las Vegas and Georgia, that player would have 2,050 points. In 2018, only two players had 2,050 FedEx Cup points when the playoffs began, and in 2017 the number was four. Which means if you sweep this portion of the season, you could take the entire year off and still be confident of a top-five position by the time the Northern Trust came around in mid-August, and that guarantees a spot in the Tour Championship – especially now that late volatility in the FedEx Cup standings will be down with just two playoff events preceding the finale at East Lake.

In the real world, though, nobody wins four events in such quick time. So the important question is not whether it’s possible, but whether it actually happens in cases of more modest success. Have players stormed through the autumn and set themselves up for a high playoffs spot even before the new year hits?

My fearless editor Ryan Herrington did the hard work of compiling the stats, which you can see in the table below. The numbers deliver an emphatic answer: “Yes.”

Kizzire put in the extra effort to play a full ‘fall’ schedule in 2017, and reaped the rewards when he qualified for the Tour Championship the next September.

The best example is none other than the man who edged Jordan Spieth for the final Tour Championship spot in 2018: Patton Kizzire. A look at his 2017-’18 fall season tells the story of a man on fire. He finished T-10 at Sanderson Farms, T-4 at the Shriners, and then he won the OHL Classic in Mexico. By the time the 2017 section of last season was over, he had accumulated 659 points. He went on to win the Sony Open in January, and then… well, then he didn’t do much of anything. No more top-10s, lots of missed cuts and very few FedEx Cup points. By the time the playoffs began, he had 1,386 points, and 47.55 percent of them had been earned in the fall.

That was good enough for 15th place in the standings when the playoffs began. His playoff performances didn’t improve – he made the cuts, but his best finish was 60th. He fell to 18th after the Northern Trust, 21st after the Dell Technologies and then 30th after the BMW.

But that 30th was good enough to make the Tour Championship. Which means, essentially, that his torrid fall performance was enough to stake his claim as one of the 30 best players of the year. Sure, he needed that Sony win, but without the fall, Kizzire would have been nowhere near the top 30. He is the poster boy for the fall leap, and when someone does it from now on, we should call it “Kizzire-ing”. Or the “Kizzire Path”. Or something.

He’s not the only one. Herrington calculated that the tournaments in the autumn accounted for 17.57 percent of the total FedEx Cup points available during the tour’s regular season. Meanwhile, 10 players who made the Tour Championship in the 2017-’18 season earned more than 17.57 percent of their total points in those first eight events – meaning their success was disproportionately tilted to the early events. Several, including Kizzire, our own Cameron Smith, Patrick Cantlay and Keegan Bradley, racked up more than a third of their points in the fall. The year before, Pat Perez and Gary Woodland earned a huge chunk of fall points, and needed them all to carry them to the Tour Championship.

Of course, it’s never advisable to drop off the face of the earth after a good start. Brendan Steele got his 2016-’17 campaign kicked off in style with a win at the Safeway Open, but despite heading into January third on the points list, his performance the rest of the way dropped him out of the top 30. The same could be said for Perez in 2018, who had another great autumn last year with a win and a T-5, but couldn’t keep his Tour Championship spot after a mediocre playoff run (he did WD from the event in Boston due to his wife going into labour). Ditto for Chesson Hadley, who earned a whopping 40 percent of his points in the fall, but finally faded out of the top 30 just two weeks before the final event.

Cautionary tales aside, the stats tell a clear story: if you’re a US PGA Tour player who covets that top 30 spot, make hay while the sun shines. Kizzire earned a good deal of prestige when he squeaked into the Tour Championship ahead of Spieth, and a good deal of money too: $163,800 for his 21st-place finish in the tournament, and $175,000 more in year-end bonus money for his FedEx Cup finish. I have a feeling his advice on this topic would be very simple, and it’s one everyone should heed: play the fall.