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Justin Thomas is the 5-2 favorite to win the Tour Championship at East Lake. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Justin Thomas is the 5-2 favorite to win the Tour Championship at East Lake. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)|Associated Press
Golf

The Tour Championship: Justin Thomas enters with a 2-shot lead but Mike Kern is picking McIlroy, Reed and Matsuyama to chase him down

The Tour Championship starts Thursday from East Lake.

Mike Kern

Mike Kern

Last week at the BMW one of my picks was Hideki Matsuyama, at close to 30-1, and he was leading by one shot through 36 holes. Following a pedestrian third round, he closed with a 9-under par round to finish third, five behind Justin Thomas. Which still isn’t good enough, but at those odds it at least was something. And if you hedged your bet and took him to just finish in the top five, you got a little bit back for your investment.

Now it’s on to the season-ending Tour Championship, at East Lake in Atlanta, which is being played some three weeks earlier this year. And there’s a new format. The field will not start out all even. It will be staggered, to reflect the year-long FedEx Cup playoffs points standings. So Thomas, who replaced Brooks Koepka at the top of the standings after last week’s performance, will start at 10-under par. The guy in second place, Patrick Cantlay, will start at 8-under. Koepka starts at 7. And so on and so forth. A lot of blokes will start out a full 10 shots back. Which explains why Thomas is the logical 5-2 favorite. He has an advantage going in. And he’s obviously playing well, even though it’s always hard to go back-to-back. But a guy like Justin Rose will have to spot Thomas a shot each nine, which is a lot to ask.

Anyway, here goes. Cantlay is 5-1. So is Koepka. Rory McIlroy, who starts five back, is 9-1. Jon Rahm, who starts six back, is 16-1. As is Patrick Reed, who starts four back. And he won two weeks ago. Webb Simpson, who starts six back, is 20-1. Dustin Johnson, who starts seven back, is 25-1. Xander Schauffele, who starts six back, is 28-1. Matsuyama, who starts seven behind, is 33. Rose, who begins eight back, is 40-1. As is Adam Scott, who is seven back. Tony Finau, also seven back, is 45-1. So is Matt Kuchar, at six back. Rickie Fowler is 50-1, Paul Casey 66-1, Tommy Fleetwood and Gary Woodland are both 80-1. There are others, such as Kevin Kisner at 125-1 and Bryson DeChambeau at 250-1.

I’m not going to pick Thomas, simply because I don’t like his numbers. I have Koepka in my yearlong pool, where I can no longer finish in the top 10 by the way, so that usually hasn’t been a good sign this season (hey, I did finish second last year, when I had Dustin Johnson in this thing). So I’m looking for maybe a guy that might have a shot with decent odds, and hope. But spotting Thomas shots won’t be easy.

I’m going to take my usual three stabs, looking for someone to come off the pace. But I would tread carefully, given the unusual nature of this format. I will try Rory McIlroy at 9-1, just because he’s one of those players who can really get it cranked up to another level. He’s had a frustrating kind of year, playing well most of the time but not quite getting it done near enough. Maybe this can kind of make up for some of that. I’ll also go with Patrick Reed, at 16-1, even though winning twice in three weeks is probably not realistic. You could take a hard look at Jon Rahm, who has also had a season similar to McIlroy. And he should have won two weeks ago. But instead I’m going to go right back to Matsuyama, at 33-1. He’s likely too far back, but he’s generally been good. It’s just that he hasn’t won in a long time. As a bonus, how about we also try Matt Kuchar at 45-1? Hey, we can do what we want. And it’s the last event. We’ve had four winners, several at good odds (including Phil Mickelson at 40 at Pebble Beach back in February), and some close calls. Maybe we can go out with another trophy. And a cashed ticket.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, being the first time. Just trying to have something to root for late Sunday afternoon. And we’ll see you again when the new season starts in mid-September.

If we don’t cross paths with college or even pro football first. Hey, it’s a big sports betting world out there. Somebody has to tackle it. Might as well be a mid-handicapper from Northeast Philly.

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