In theory, all 30 of the elite field teeing off today at East Lake in this end-of-season bonanza has a chance of scooping the biggest payday in golf. The PGA Tour ensure this egalitarian edge to their showpiece event, not just by removing a halfway cut but by resetting the points in the standings following the last FedEx Series tournament, the BMW Championship two weeks ago.
It means that No 30 Charl Schwartzel and everyone else between him and No 1, Dustin Johnson, can follow 2015 FedEx Cup champion Jordan Spieth into the mega money in Atlanta, albeit if Johnson finishes in the bottom two.
The reality is that the bonanza generally goes to the best golfer this weekend. Spieth needed to win last year’s tournament to scoop his $10m season-ending bonus, just as his five immediate predecessors did on the Donald Ross- designed and Rees Jones-renovated course where the great and decidedly amateur Bobby Jones honed his craft almost a century ago.
Tiger Woods was the last man to grab the big pot of cash without winning, losing out to his great rival Phil Mickelson for the Tour Championship in 2009 yet walking away with 10 times the tournament winner’s pay cheque.
Which makes the top five in the standings at the start of the tournament begin today’s first round in pole position. From Johnson to No 5 Paul Casey with Patrick Reed, Adam Scott and Jason Day in between, the points-leading quintet are the only ones who know the victory will provide the extra dough.
From number six, who happens to be Rory McIlroy, down to Schwartzel, fate is to varying degrees out of their control. Spieth, like McIlroy, needs to win on Sunday and for US Open champion Johnson to finish no better than in a tie for second to be assured of the loot for the second year in a row.
“Unfortunately, I’m not in the top five, so I don’t necessarily fully control my own destiny,” World No 4 Spieth said. “But pending being a bit unlucky, if I win I should still control my own destiny.
“I know the scenarios. I just can control what I can control. I feel really good about where the game’s at. I love coming here. Love these Bermuda greens. Love playing on the Bermuda surface. I don’t see it often, and it’s what I grew up on. I feel really comfortable here.”
So he should. The Texan put the tin hat of an outstanding 2015 season by landing his fifth victory of the year at East Lake, having shaken off Henrik Stenson in the final round.
As had been the case throughout the campaign, it was a Spieth putting masterclass that made the difference as he reeled off three birdies around the turn to win by four shots from the Swede, who tied for second place with New Zealand’s Danny Lee and England’s Justin Rose.
McIlroy will tee off alongside No 5 Casey in the third but last group having added the FedEx play-off’s Deutsche Bank Championship to his Irish Open victory earlier this season, and with his once stress-inducing putting apparently a thing of the past having turned at long last to a coach, Phil Kenyon, to cure his ills on the greens.
His last start, though, produced a middling finish at the BMW Championship a fortnight ago. While Dustin Johnson added even more sheen to his brilliant season by winning at Crooked Stick in Indiana, McIlroy limped along in a rain-hit week to finish in a tie for 42nd alongside Graeme McDowell, whose interest in the play-offs was duly ended as a result.
Coming back to East Lake is a familiar rite in September for the PGA Tour’s brightest stars and most consistent performers, and McIlroy has come close here in his three previous visits, most notably in 2014 when he tied for second behind Billy Horschel at the end of a stellar summer which had delivered both the Open and PGA Championships.
He has also finished tied for 10th in 2012, did not qualify at the end of his annus horribilis a year later and last year tied for 16th.
Yet Tour officials have tweaked the set-up this time around, reversing the course’s nines to turn the traditional final hole, a difficult but not very exciting 235-yard par-three, into the ninth hole while the new 18th will be a 600-yard par five.
The reversal has met with the approval of many in the field, with third-ranked Adam Scott saying of the former finishing hole: “The par-3 old 18th just hasn’t brought anything really special. That may be just circumstance of where everyone was at in the tournament, but now with the par five finishing hole, even the thought of someone being in trouble is more in your mind.
“You really didn’t think someone could make a huge mess on the par 3 but on the par 5, there is just so many more things that could happen, good or bad, to a player. It will make the finish more exciting.”