Sunday Surprises

ATLANTA – For good reason, so much of the focus at the TOUR Championship revolves around the fierce competition for the PGA TOUR finale and a $10 million bonus for winning the season-long FedExCup.

Quality storylines, to be sure. But annually, it seems that what fails to get celebrated are the players who can use the TOUR Championship to toast a season well played. They are the players who less than 10 months earlier had held a world-ranking that didn’t exactly translate into big expectations come FedExCup playoff time, yet a handful of names this year emphatically proved that there is indeed great depth on the PGA TOUR.

For example, how about a player ranked 1,866th less than 10 months ago? Bet you didn’t expect to see Patrick Cantlay as one of the last 30 players standing come TOUR Championship time at East Lake Golf Club.

Or that man sitting at No. 258 at the start of the season, Kyle Stanley. Or Adam Hadwin, No. 191. Hey, even the guy sitting at No. 118, Pat Perez, figures you didn’t think he’d be in the TOUR Championship.

At 41, he might have had his doubts, too, but in case you wonder if players consider the TOUR Championship to be a big deal, listen to Perez. “I’ll be very proud of what I’ve done this year, because these guys are all so good,” he said. “I obviously had a great year to get to here.”

Succinct observation by Perez, but one that sometimes get lost in the conversation when we get to this point in the season. That’s why there’s a small parade of players who can take a bow for having made their way into the elite East Lake Golf Club field in 2017.

No one more remarkably than Xander Schauffele. He was 299th in the Official World Golf Ranking to start 2017 and by mid-June he was probably an unknown commodity to most PGA TOUR watchers. Then he finished joint fifth at the U.S. Open. Two weeks later, he won the Greenbrier Classic and suddenly he was thrust into the thick of the FedExCup playoff rush.

Fantastic for him, especially since he parlayed his playoff run into a stunning victory at the TOUR Championship. It was easily the biggest exclamation point of the week at East Lake Golf Club, a $3,575,000 payday (winner’s check, third-place FEC bonus) for an unheralded kid with a warm smile and a feel-good story. Yet, it wasn’t the only tale of a guy who began 2017 outside the top 100 in the OWGR but ended it inside the elite field of 30 at the TOUR Championship.

Joining Cantlay, Schauffele, Stanley, Hadwin and Perez from outside the top 100 at the stat of 2017 were Brian Harman, No. 141; Jon Rahm, No. 137; and Russell Henley, No. 128.

“It’s all so surreal,” said Schauffele, at 23 the second-youngest player in the field who conceded he carried a nothing-to-lose attitude all week.

Others agreed that it was the proper attitude to have, given that the season had richly rewarded their steady play. But if the presence of Cantlay, Schauffele, Stanley, Hadwin, Harman, Rahm, Henley, and Perez proved anything, it’s that this notion of superb depth on the PGA TOUR is no exaggeration. It’s real, very real.

While notables such as Justin Rose, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed all failed to win, seven of the aforementioned raised championship hardware. The exception was Cantlay, who might have been the most intriguing storyline at the TOUR Championship.

A heralded player from the same graduating class that gave us Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, Cantlay, 25, has battled back issues and been on a limited schedule the last few years. His ranking (1,866th) was reflective of his inaction, so when he qualified for the TOUR Championship in just 12 starts, it put him in rarified air. Only Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker and Rory McIlroy earned a TOUR Championship spot with fewer than 15 starts.

Understated and supremely quiet, Cantlay never made a big deal of it, so let us do it for him. His was one of the best stories of the year.

That it was surpassed by the drama involving Schauffele at East Lake is a tribute to the incredible depth of world-class golf talent that is overflowing. Much to your delight, if you love this PGA TOUR landscape.