By DOUG FERGUSON
ATLANTA (AP) — Justin Thomas has a two-shot lead, and the Tour Championship hasn’t even started.
If that seems difficult to fathom, consider that someone could win this week without having the lowest 72-hole score.
And remember, such a radical change was to make the FedEx Cup finale easier to follow.
The first staggered start in PGA Tour history — Thomas begins at 10-under par, the bottom five players are at even par — unfolds Thursday at East Lake when 30 players who reached the final stage of the FedEx Cup playoffs chase the $15 million prize, the biggest payout in golf history.
“I could see a scenario where come Sunday, 15 guys might have a chance to win the entire thing,” Rory McIlroy said Wednesday. “It will be exciting. It will be different. But at the same time, you’ve just got to go out there and try to play some good golf and not look around at what other guys are doing, and trust that by the end of the week things will hopefully even out.”
The idea behind the new format was to bring clarity to the FedEx Cup by having only one winner Sunday.
Each of the last two years, one player won the Tour Championship and another player won the points-based FedEx Cup. It was especially awkward last year because while Justin Rose won the FedEx Cup, all anyone cared about was seeing Tiger Woods in his red shirt celebrating a two-shot victory, his first in five years.
“My bank manager didn’t mind,” Rose said.
One function of the FedEx Cup hasn’t changed: It was designed to give an advantage to players who had the best season, and who played their best golf in the postseason when the points were valued four times higher.
Now, the advantage is strokes to par.
Thomas, who won the BMW Championship last week to become No. 1 in the FedEx Cup, tees off Thursday already at 10-under par. Patrick Cantlay is No. 2 and will start at 8 under, followed by Brooks Koepka at 7 under, Patrick Reed at 6 under and McIlroy at 5 under.
The next groups of five players in the standings will be at 4 under, 3 under, 2 under, 1 under and even par.
The leaderboards on the course, online and on television will show only the score to par, not what was shot each day.
“The FedEx Cup is not a tournament. The Tour Championship is now for the FedEx Cup,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said. “So when you make that transition, you have to recognize there are 45 tournaments that precede it.”
If nothing else, the new format eliminates the kind of math that would give even Bryson DeChambeau a headache, computing where players needed to finish to earn points to win. Last year for example, Rose was the No. 2 seed and his birdie on the last hole gave him a three-way tie for fourth, enough points to win the cup. Dustin Johnson was the No. 4 seed and finished third. If he had finished in a two-way tie for second, he would have won the cup.
Using this year’s format, Rose would have won the FedEx Cup by one shot over Woods because as the No. 2 seed, Rose would have started six shots better.
Now it’s time to see if it will work.
“I think it’s hokey,” Cantlay said. “It’s weird to have a format no one has ever seen. And I think it’s a shame we lose the Tour Championship. I haven’t gone through it. No one has. I’m going to reserve final judgment until I’ve gone through the week.”
Whoever finishes with the lowest score to par wins the FedEx Cup and gets credit for winning the Tour Championship, even if he doesn’t have the lowest score in the Tour Championship. Meanwhile, the tour will keep track of conventional scoring — everyone will the first year — to award world ranking points.
“For all of us guys chasing, the first day will be important,” said Rose, who is No. 17 and thus starts at 2 under. “You can’t give up more shots.”
Most curious about the format is how many players have a reasonable chance of winning.
McIlroy won his first PGA Tour event at Quail Hollow in 2010 when he made eagle on his 16th hole Friday to make the cut on the number. He shot 66-62 on the weekend to rally from nine shots behind.
“And that was just two rounds,” McIlroy said. “With two extra rounds, you can free-wheel it. There’s a lot more volatility.”
There have been a number of players who made the cut on the number and rallied from big deficits over 36 holes. Carl Pettersson shot 60-67 on the weekend to come from nine back in the 2010 Canadian Open. Brad Faxon rallied from 12 shots behind with a 65-61 finish in Hartford in 2005.
It could be wild on the weekend. Or maybe Thomas opens with a pair of 64s and makes it a runaway.
He is keeping it simple.
“I’m just going to have to try to play another golf tournament and act like everyone’s starting at zero and try to shoot the lowest 72 holes,” Thomas said. “Because I know if I do that, then I should be OK.”