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Tour Championship 2019: £12 million jackpot and revamped format sure to deliver thrills in golf’s answer to Super Bowl

Jack Rathborn

“It’s going to be weird,” Justin Thomas proclaimed in anticipation of this week’s Tour Championship as the PGA Tour roll out their latest attempt at golf’s answer to the Super Bowl.

That’s because Thomas, fresh from winning the BMW Championship, now leads the FedEx Cup standings, the Tour’s cumulative year-long points leader board, to take a two-shot lead into Thursday’s play-off finale.

Last year we had the baffling situation of two winners with Tiger Woods winning the tournament, but Justin Rose prevailing in the FedEx Cup to pocket the obscene $10 million (£8.2m) bonus. Innovation is vital at a time when golf is struggling to attract and keep fans. So while this year’s staggered handicap system, merging the two competitions together, is not perfect, it is certainly less perplexing for viewers.

The PGA Tour has even cranked up the winner’s prize to $15m (£12.35m) this year for the player who emerges from this 30-strong field. That sum alone would place you 122nd in the all-time career earnings list, topping Greg Norman, who spent 331 weeks as the game’s best player.

Second place on Sunday will land $5m (£4.1m), which presents this tantalising prospect: a putt on the 72nd hole worth $10m (£8.25m) and perhaps the closest example sport might ever find to clutch.

Dead last week incidentally brings home $395,000 (£325,000), so any niggling injury should disappear a little quicker than it might usually.

Golf is forced into this exclusive, lavish finale to some extent, as unlike other sports, their stars, while boasting greater longevity, struggle to push the financial limits available to other athletes. Brooks Koepka has earned almost $10m this season in prize money compared to Steph Curry’s $40m per year deal with the Golden State Warriors, or Neymar, who earns a similar amount.

Brooks Koepka is two shots behind Justin Thomas entering Thursday (Getty)

Thomas, a genuine star in his own right, leads the standings and therefore starts on Thursday at 10-under, two clear of Patrick Cantlay and his breakout year, and one more adrift of Koepka. It is a baffling predicament for the current world No 1 and sure-fire player of the year, who can boast three wins this season, including the PGA Championship, as well as runner-ups at The Masters and US Open, plus a tied-fourth at The Open. Yet he could conceivably shoot a lower total score than Thomas and miss out on the jackpot.

Amid groans over slow play and debate over course set-up, following the notoriously treacherous Medinah being chewed up and spat out last week, it is a relief to welcome the elite competing with such intense pressure, even if it is artificially manufactured by money, rather than the prestige and history of the majors.

Rory McIlroy is five shots behind (Getty)

The exclusive field here, whittled down over recent weeks, ensures the conspicuous absence of Tiger Woods, as well as Open champion Shane Lowry.

“I truly have no idea what to expect,” Thomas claimed. “There’s nobody in the history of this sport that has experienced it so nobody knows.

“There’s so many variables and questions I have and this and that. If I birdie the first hole what am I at? I don’t know. Do I shoot a score, do I not? Whatever.”

Many share Thomas’ trepidation about the format this week, but should it resonate with the audience, golf, away from the majors and the Ryder Cup, might finally break through into the mainstream.

Rickie Fowler is eight shots behind Justin Thomas (Getty)

Starting strokes

10 under – Justin Thomas

8 under – Patrick Cantlay

7 under – Brooks Koepka

6 under – Patrick Reed

5 under – Rory McIlroy

4 under – Jon Rahm, Matt Kuchar, Xander Schauffele, Webb Simpson, Abraham Ancer

3 under – Gary Woodland, Tony Finau, Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama

2 under – Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Brandt Snedeker, Rickie Fowler, Kevin Kisner

1 under – Marc Leishman, Tommy Fleetwood, Corey Conners, Sungjae Im, Chez Reavie

Even par – Bryson DeChambeau, Louis Oosthuizen, Charles Howell III, Lucas Glover, Jason Kokrak​