Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 21, 2018

The PGA Tour’s Really Bad Idea

The worst kept secret in sports was finally revealed this week – officially that is – when PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced a fundamental change to the format of the season-ending Tour Championship, starting next year. He did so even as the thirty players in this year’s event prepared to tee off at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club in Thursday’s first round.

Since its debut in 1987, the tournament has served as the capstone to the PGA Tour season. For the first two decades the field was limited to the top thirty players on the money list. Then in 2007 the Tour introduced the FedEx Cup, a season-long points race culminating in four playoff events featuring progressively smaller fields, with a $10 million bonus waiting for the golfer with the most points at the end of the final tournament. The giant prize, part of a whopping $35 million bonus pool, was designed to keep fans watching and top players competing long after the year’s four majors had concluded. Since the arrival of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the top thirty golfers on the points list have comprised the field at East Lake.

Almost from the start the Tour has subjected the playoffs to tweaks and changes. In just the second year Vijay Singh arrived at the Tour Championship with victories in two of the first three events and such a commanding lead in the points race that he was assured of winning the FedEx Cup and the big bonus check as long as he didn’t fall down and hurt himself while strolling around the grounds for four days. That led to a resetting of points prior to the final tournament so that all thirty golfers retained a mathematical chance of winning the Cup, with the top five assured of doing so with a victory on Sunday afternoon. Then in 2013 the points list, and the top one hundred twenty-five golfers on it, replaced money winnings as the standard for retaining playing privileges for the next PGA Tour season.

Those changes did not alter the fact that over each season’s final weekend golfers were competing in and fans were following two separate competitions. One was the Tour Championship itself, with a purse that has now climbed to $9 million, $1.62 million of which goes to the tournament winner. The other was the FedEx Cup race and the distribution of the big bonus pool. Three times, in 2008, 2009, and again last year, the two prizes went to two different golfers.

With nothing to motivate him in 2008, Singh failed to break par in any round, finishing at 9-over, sixteen shots behind Camilo Villegas and Sergio Garcia, with the former winning the tournament in a playoff. The following year Tiger Woods came into the season’s final event leading in the points race, and his runner-up finish at East Lake was good enough to secure the FedEx Cup. But it was Phil Mickelson who raised the tournament trophy after a blistering 65 on Sunday left him three shots clear of Woods. Then last season Justin Thomas passed Jordan Spieth in the points race by finishing second to Spieth’s seventh at the Tour Championship, but both trailed Xander Schauffele, who won the event with four rounds in the 60s.

Apparently Monahan and the rest of the PGA Tour’s leadership felt that for fans having two races to watch on each season’s final weekend produced more confusion than excitement, and the regular updates of the FedEx Cup standings during the television broadcast, as players’ positions changed with each missed or made putt, was a distraction rather than a drawing card. Starting next year, the current format of the FedEx Cup race and the Tour Championship will be replaced. The season-long points race will end at the BMW Championship, the second of three playoff stops. For the Tour Championship, the thirty remaining golfers will be handicapped based on their position in that points race. The leader will tee off at East Lake already 10-under par. The golfers second through fourth in points will begin at 8, 7, 6 and 5-under respectively. The remaining twenty-five players, in groups of five, will start play from 4-under down to even par. The separate purse and trophy for the Tour Championship will be abandoned, with the winner of the event claiming both it and the FedEx Cup.

The change turns the Tour Championship, one of the Tour’s flagship tournaments, into a handicapped event, the equivalent of a weekend fourball tournament at your local country club, where the prize for the team with the low net score is $50 of pro shop credit. Gone is the most fundamental idea of stroke play tournaments at the professional level, namely that the golfer who navigates four rounds in the fewest strokes is the winner. It’s no wonder that the managers of the Official World Golf Rankings have yet to weigh in on how many, if any, ranking points will be awarded at the Tour Championship beginning next year.

The new format is the last in a series of changes to the structure of the PGA Tour season that have been rolled out over the past few months. The season is being shortened, the playoffs reduced from four events to three, and tournaments have been moved on the schedule. Beginning with the Players Championship, which is returning to a March date after being played in May for the last decade, the PGA Tour will have one showcase event every month through September. The Players will be followed by the four majors, the Masters in April, PGA Championship in May, US Open in June and Open Championship in July. August will feature the FedEx Cup playoffs and the Tour Championship, and then in September, as sports fans turn their attention to the NFL, baseball playoff races and the approaching NBA and NHL seasons, men’s golf will slip off the stage with either the Ryder or Presidents Cup.

While Monahan’s boast that the PGA Tour will “own the month of August” on the sports calendar is overheated hyperbole, the changes as a whole make good sense. But the new format of the Tour Championship is a senseless gimmick.

Perhaps the best illustration of that came Thursday afternoon. On the 18th green at East Lake, Tiger Woods rolled in a 27-foot putt for an eagle three to post a 5-under 65, good for a share of the lead with Rickie Fowler after the first round of this year’s Tour Championship. One round does not a tournament make, and who knows where Woods will be on the leader board come Sunday. But we do know that if next year’s format were already in effect, he wouldn’t have been tied for the lead Thursday night. Instead, having started at minus-2, he’d be 7-under after 18 holes, but that would only place Woods in fifth, five shots behind Justin Rose, with Tony Finau, Bryson DeChambeau, and Justin Thomas also ahead of him. Imagine the outcry if the greatest golfer of his generation, a player most fans long to see win again, played the Tour Championship in the fewest strokes but was denied a victory because of the tournament’s format. That’s the fiasco that could unfold next August.  It would certainly make the month memorable, but not in a way that Jay Monahan would really want to own.

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