Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 18, 2019

The PGA Tour’s Solution In Search Of A Problem

Perhaps PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has a low opinion of his sport’s fans. That at least is an inference one can draw from the newest format for the Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, announced more than a year ago but just being fully implemented with the start of this year’s Tour Championship next Thursday. That tournament has been around for more than three decades, originally as a rich season-ending event for the top 30 money winners, and since 2007 as the final stop in the Tour’s four, no make that three, week playoff run. Since that year’s advent of the FedEx Cup, with its massive bonus structure that includes $15 million for the winner starting this year, but pays out progressively smaller but still quite welcome dividends all the way down to number 150 in the standings, the structure of the playoffs has been altered with depressing regularity. Now even the format of the final tournament has been changed, ostensibly to make the entire system less confusing for golf fans.

The confusion, real or imagined, stems from the goal of making the FedEx Cup a recognition not of superior play over just the four days of a single 72-hole tournament, but rather of the consistently best golf throughout the PGA Tour’s year-round season. To that end points are awarded based on the order of finish at each Tour stop. The winner of the typical weekly Insurance Company or Banking Conglomerate Open garners 500 FedEx Cup points. Higher point values are distributed at the four majors and at the World Golf Championship events. The top 125 golfers on the season-long points list qualify for the playoffs, with the field steadily shrinking each week, down to the final 30 who tee it up at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club for the Tour Championship.

Almost immediately the most obvious pitfall of accumulating points over almost twelve months became apparent. In 2007 Tiger Woods was so far ahead in the standings at the start of the playoffs he was able to skip the first event entirely and still coast to victory in the inaugural FedEx Cup. One year later Vijay Singh was sufficiently far ahead entering the Tour Championship that all he had to do was not be disqualified or withdraw from the event – basically remain upright through the weekend – in order to win.

That early dearth of drama produced a series of changes over the years since, including resetting points before the playoffs to tighten the standings, increasing points available at each of the playoff events to encourage participation, and eventually introducing yet another reset of points before the tournament at East Lake, so that all 30 participants had a mathematical chance of winning the Cup.

Through all of those changes the one constant was that the Tour Championship remained a 72-hole stroke play tournament that crowned as its winner the golfer who returned the lowest score over the season’s final four days. As would be expected given that status, the Tour Championship had its own purse – $2 million back in 1987, $7 million by the time the playoffs were introduced, and finally $9 million last year, with $1.62 million going to the winner. It also had its own trophy, a sterling silver replica of “Calamity Jane,” the putter used by Bobby Jones.

But that distinction between the season’s final event and the year-long points race and playoffs meant that it was possible for a player to win the tournament but not, depending on his place in the standings and the performance of the other 29 golfers in the field, also capture the FedEx Cup. The result would be two players holding trophies on the 18th green, one with the sterling Calamity Jane and the other with the FedEx Cup. It is that outcome that the Tour decided was hopelessly confusing for the apparently simple-minded buffoons who follow golf.

The solution devised by the PGA Tour is to turn the Tour Championship into the equivalent of a country club net championship. With Sunday’s conclusion of the BMW Championship, won by Justin Thomas, the season-long FedEx Cup points race ended. The 30 golfers advancing to East Lake will now start with different scores relative to par based on those final standings. The victory by Thomas, his first in just over a year, propelled the 26-year-old major winner to the top of the standings, so he will begin play on Thursday at 10-under par. Runner-up Patrick Cantlay will tee it up at 8-under. Meanwhile Brooks Koepka, with three regular season victories including a major, and Rory McIlroy, with as many wins (two) and nearly as many top-10 finishes (13 versus 15) as Thomas and Cantlay combined, will both start further behind Thomas, having finished third and fifth respectively in the FedEx Cup points race.

For the full field, the points leader starts at 10-under, with positions two through five at 8-under down to 5-under. After that the golfers are bunched in groups of five, with each group giving up one additional stroke to the leader. The players finishing sixth through tenth in the standings will go off at 4-under, and so on down to positions twenty-six through thirty, who will start at even par.

The notion that golf fans are befuddled by a week with multiple “winners” is insulting; besides which such an outcome is hardly the norm. In the twelve years of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the winner of the season’s final event and the Cup winner have been different only four times. It’s also telling that the Official World Golf Rankings will ignore the handicapped start to the tournament. Ranking points will be awarded based on an imaginary leader board with just the actual shots of the players.

Unfortunately, half of the instances of a split result came in the last two years, spurring the misguided change in format. Thomas won the FedEx Cup during his dominant 2017 run that featured five tournament wins including the PGA Championship, but at the Tour Championship he finished second to Xander Schauffele by a single stroke. Then last season England’s Justin Rose took home the FedEx Cup trophy and the big bonus check but had to share space during the awards ceremony with Tiger Woods, who won the Tour Championship for his first victory in more than five years. Of course, had the new format been in effect back then Woods, despite taking five fewer shots over four days would have finished one stroke behind Rose, who would have started six ahead of Tiger and finished holding both trophies. That would have been so much less confusing, but just how happy would most golf fans have been?


Responses

  1. When did they lose sight of “the lowest score, today, wins the trophy”? Your explanation is a good one, Mike, and it seems to me that Golf, Inc is just trying to hype interest in their product. I’m kind of a bare-bones, head-to-head, no-fooling-around kinda sports guy, so my view is probably in the minority.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. As the old play on words goes, they wanted to increase interest in the worst possible way, so they did!

      M-


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