- Senior Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Born and raised in Western Montana
- Spent 11 years as a feature writer for The Baltimore Sun
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In virtually every sport, when the playoffs begin, players know the intensity is going to rise. In football, defenses hit harder. Coaches treat turnovers by their own team like a tragedy. In basketball, you have to fight for every rebound. Postseason baseball at-bats often play out like a battle of wills.
In professional golf, something different unfolds.
The game appears to get easier.
Bogeys become rare. Doubles are almost unheard of. Players aren’t tested on whether they can make birdies, they’re tested on how many they can make. And they’d better make a ton of them, or they’re going to get dusted by the leaders.
The BMW Championship at Caves Valley this week, the second event in the FedEx Cup playoffs, has been the perfect example. Through three rounds, the 70-man field has made 948 total birdies and 20 eagles. The field is 527 under par, for a 69.4 scoring average.
Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau, tied for the lead at 21 under, have a great chance to shoot the lowest score (in relation to par) on tour this year. Harris English shot 25 under at the Tournament of Champions in January (albeit on a par-73 course with five par-5s), and K.H. Lee shot 25 under at TPC Craig Ranch en route to winning the Byron Nelson in May. Only three players in tour history have ever shot 30 under in a four-round tournament, but one of those times came during the 2020 FedEx Cup playoffs, when Dustin Johnson won the Northern Trust by 11 shots.
What to make of it? That depends on your perspective. The FedEx Cup isn’t a major, and no fan would confuse it for one, despite the PGA Tour’s massive investment in marketing these playoffs. But shouldn’t the postseason have a little more teeth than this? Asked what he thought about his third-round 66, Cantlay was fairly candid.
“It was another day on a soft, easy golf course,” he said.
The reality is, this might be exactly what the PGA Tour, and its sponsors, want the postseason to look like. After all, what’s more likely to pull viewers away from the first weekend of college football: The best players in the world racking up birdies and eagles? Or the same players grinding for pars?
“I certainly think the FedEx Cup playoffs are different than the majors,” said Rory McIlroy, who sits in a tie for fourth at 17 under. “The tour is a — this is going to sound a little bad but — I think it’s more of an entertainment product rather than the majors. The majors are set up a little bit differently and it’s supposed to be the toughest test that we face all year. It’s a little bit different.”
There are plenty of reasons as to why it’s different, and some of them the PGA Tour couldn’t control even if it wanted to. Temperatures in the Northeast are scorching at this time of year, and humid days in this region are often followed by nightly thunderstorms. Trying to keep a course like Caves Valley firm — when firmness is probably its only defense against professionals — has been an impossible ask for the maintenance crew.
“Look, it’s an area of the country here where it does get hot and humid, and bentgrass, it’s not going to have the characteristics that you want to have a really challenging golf course,” McIlroy said. “I don’t really know where you could go this time of the year where that’s not going to happen without it being like over on the West Coast or Northwest or whatever.”
McIlroy and Cantlay weren’t alone in their candor. When players know the ball won’t bounce very far after it lands, it doesn’t matter how long the course is. Everyone can, and will, go low.
“A guy like Bryson is hard to beat on a golf course like this because it’s soft. The closer you get up there, the better,” said Sam Burns, who is tied with McIlroy and Sergio Garcia at 17 under.
“It’s fun if you’re playing well,” said Garcia, who shot 67 in the third round. “It’s not my favorite kind of golf. I like it when it’s a bit more challenging and it’s not just putting. Which obviously don’t misinterpret me, you still have to hit the shots. … [But] the course is playing fairly simple.”
Jon Rahm was tied for the lead after firing a first-round 64. He then followed it up with a 66 and a 68, and he lost ground each day, falling all the way to eighth. Only four players in the 70-man field — Carlos Ortiz, Russell Henley, Max Homa and Collin Morikawa — are currently over par. Their combined score: 5 over.
“If it’s soft, you just have to have narrow fairways and high rough [to challenge tour players],” said Jordan Spieth, who is 5 under and tied for 49th. “But the fairways are pretty wide here and the greens are pretty big. You have to really kind of screw up to make a bogey. … It’s hard to kind of be totally out of position unless you do something really wrong.”
Caves Valley, which is hosting a PGA Tour event for the first time, is not a course with narrow fairways. In fact, it has some of the widest fairways of any course the players play outside of the Plantation Course in Kapalua. It also has three par-4s that are less than 400 yards. With modern technology, that is a green light for a lot of players.
“I think there’s a lot of courses we play nowadays where a lot of fairways pinch in at 300 and 310 [yards],” McIlroy said. “It doesn’t allow the long hitters to hit driver a lot, last week being a pretty good example of that. Whenever you get a big golf course like this that allows the big hitters to hit driver, that’s usually a big advantage. It’s just nice to get driver in your hand and be able to feel like you can let it fly a bit.”
That wasn’t the case at last year’s BMW Championship, where firm conditions at Olympia Fields produced one of the toughest tests all year. Only five players finished under par, and Rahm’s winning score (4 under) was actually closer to par than DeChambeau’s winning score at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. It is possible to have a stern test in the playoffs, but at least this year, it won’t come until the top 30 get to East Lake in Atlanta next week for the Tour Championship.
“I do like the harder tests, but I don’t want a really hard test every single week,” McIlroy said. “East Lake will be a good example — 12 under wins. I think 12 under is a really good winning score for — 8 to 12 under par is a good winning score on most golf courses. I think it tests guys the right amount but also lets you make some birdies and gives you chances. I think there’s a balance there to be struck. It depends what we’re all trying to get out of the FedEx Cup playoffs. I think one part of it is entertainment. It’s certainly been entertaining this week. I don’t think it’ll be quite as — it won’t be the birdie-fest next week [in the Tour Championship] as it is this week. And I think that’s a good thing, especially when you come to the final one and the top 30. I think the challenge is an important part of it, too.”
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