Much at stake at East Lake

September, 21, 2010
09/21/10
10:54
AM ET

There's more than the FedEx Cup title on the line this weekend at East Lake.

I don't know if you heard, but the award that's been an afterthought to the PGA Tour season for the last decade -- mostly because one man has won nine of the last 11 of them -- will undoubtedly be given to someone in 2010 who's never won it before.

Trivia question

East Lake Golf Club was the home course of Bobby Jones. What was the last professional major that Mr. Jones won?

(Answer below.)

The first winless PGA Tour season of Tiger Woods' career (with the now-official WGC-HSBC Champions still to come in November) has lowered a drawbridge over the chasm that was his supremacy over the golf world. The almost impenetrable Player of the Year castle he's built since 1997 awaits on the other side.

Here comes the cavalry trying to claim the trophy.

It's an exciting race that could be won by any number of players this weekend in Atlanta. The real award will be voted upon by those who know best -- the players themselves. But mathematically, how do we break down the most worthy? We at Numbers Game have concocted a formula, as we're prone to do, trying to come up with a way to deduce who's had the best year in 2010.

The Numbers Game POY formula takes majors as seriously as golf fans do, so performance in those plays a big role. We've borrowed our 'Major Points' scale from our Almost Index formula, which is used to conclude who the best player is without a major championship. Basically, it gives points in majors based on where a player lands in the top-10. A second-place finish gets 9.5, T-2 gets 9, third alone gets 8.5, and so on. A major championship win gets 20 points in our system. Wins in WGC tournaments, FedEx Cup playoff tournaments, and The Players Championship gets 12 points. A win at Bay Hill, Memorial or the AT&T gets 6, and all other PGA Tour wins get 4.

We also take into account top-10 percentage throughout the year, as well as finishing second or third in any non-major PGA Tour event. Those are 'close' points -- for lack of a better term -- one for a second-place finish or T-2, and .5 for getting a piece of third. The values of these don't change based on the quality of the non-major tournament. Here's the formula, in its entirety:

Major points + (Top-10 percentage X 5) + Victory points + Close points = POY Index.

A complicated formula, it is not. Take into consideration that major champions Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen are not full-time members on the PGA Tour, and therefore are excluded from this exercise. Let's see who our contenders are, counting down from 4 to 1.

4. Matt Kuchar
Wins: 1 (The Barclays)
Major top-10's: T-6 at U.S. Open, T-10 at PGA
POY score: 22.792

In what has been the breakout season a decade in the making, Kuchar has been arguably the most consistent player on the PGA Tour this year. Kuchar has 11 top-10's this year -- no one else has more than 9.

His win at The Barclays and subsequent strong performances at the BMW and Deutsche Bank have him as one of the favorites heading into East Lake, and a FedEx Cup trophy might solidify Kuchar as the Player of the Year, even without a major championship in tow. His Barclays win is his biggest POY points gainer by far, but finishing in the top-10 nearly 50 percent of the time he's teed it up in 2010 doesn't hurt, either.

3. Dustin Johnson
Wins: 2 (AT&T Pebble Beach, BMW Championship)
Major top-10's: T-8 at U.S. Open, T-5 at PGA
POY score: 28.090

Even if he wins the Player of the Year Award, which is a distinct possibility, Johnson will be remembered for two things in 2010 more so than the prestigious honor: 1) golf's most famous rules infraction in more than 30 years, and 2) blowing a big 54-hole lead in the final round of the U.S. Open. It's unfortunate, because Johnson has had a great year. His BMW win means that he's one of the five players who control their own destiny for the FedEx Cup title.

2. Ernie Els
Wins: 2 (Bay Hill, WGC-CA at Doral)
Major top-10's: 3rd at U.S. Open
POY score: 28.580

Ernie's best work was done before the 4th of July, but it was such good work (a pair of wins in nice events, third-place finish at the U.S. Open, and a T-3 in Texas) that he sat atop the FedEx Cup points standings for most of 2010. The Big Easy's no longer in control of his FedEx Cup title destiny though -- a T-13 at the BMW is his best showing in the playoffs so far.

Even so, a win at East Lake -- even without the outright FedEx Cup championship -- might be enough to put him over the top as the Player of the Year. A interesting note -- he has not aggregated any POY points in our formula since the U.S. Open.

1. Phil Mickelson
Win: Masters
Major top-10's: Masters win, T-4 at U.S. Open
POY score: 30.080

Phil Mickelson has said in the past that any year in which a major championship is won is a successful one. With this perspective in mind, we present the significance of major championship performance in our formula. Phil clocks huge major points -- 27.5 of his 30.080 points for 2010 come from just two tournaments -- but his case is supported by good play in other events, too.

Mickelson finished second to Rory McIlroy at Quail Hollow, and picked up a T-5 at Jack's place in June. A T-8 finish at the BMW has him in 10th entering East Lake, so he'll need some help to win the FedEx Cup trophy. However, a repeat win in Atlanta would vault him to world No. 1, and probably PGA Tour player of the Year.


Hole to watch this week
When a course holds a singular event every year, and the very nature of that event is to have an elite field of players who have advanced through a playoff system that rewards good play, the course will inherently showcase numbers that indicate that. The scores are, in theory, low at East Lake for a reason: the FedEx Cup Playoffs and their finale are supposedly indicative of the best that the PGA Tour has to offer in a given season.

Still, East Lake is not without its tougher statistical moments. There are some things that even the most elite collection of tour players will have problems overcoming. In 2008, the course closed and quickly worked to restore the firm, fast, difficult conditions that re-designer Rees Jones desired.

The par-4 5th hole is indicative of this idea. Listed at a monstrous 520 yards, the hole actually doesn't play that long -- players' tee shots will pitch forward on the downslope of the fairway. The hole is one of two par 5s that were shortened to play as par 4s for this event.

Trivia answer

Question: East Lake Golf Club was the home course of Bobby Jones. What was the last professional major that Mr. Jones won?

Answer: Jones won seven professional majors in his career (as well as five U.S. Amateurs and one British Amateur), the last of which was the 1930 British Open.

Last year, only four players made birdies at the 5th hole compared to 36 bogeys or worse. The 5th hole's scoring average of 4.3 placed it in the top-25 among most difficult par 4s in non-majors last year on tour.

Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he studied convergence media. Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.

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