Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 29, 2021

The PGA Tour’s Playoff Path Needs More Potholes

Patrick Cantlay won the BMW Championship Sunday, beating Bryson DeChambeau on the sixth hole of a sudden-death playoff.  The victory put Cantlay in the driver’s seat for the FedEx Cup and its $15 million payday as the PGA Tour heads to the season’s final event, the Tour Championship.  The Cup points leader heading into that tournament, Cantlay will start play at 10-under par, with the remaining twenty-nine golfers in the field teeing it up from two to ten strokes behind, based on their place in the standings.

To the casual observer, the first two events going to extra holes and that mammoth prize waiting for someone at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta next Sunday evening will be confirmation that for all the adjustments and changes that have been made to the FedEx Cup Playoffs over the years, all is well with the postseason format of golf’s preeminent professional Tour.  But like a fast green with subtle breaks, looks can be deceiving.

While the BMW and last week’s Northern Trust each gave fans the drama of sudden death, both events did so after the players at the top of the leader board scorched the two playoff courses.  This week it was Caves Valley in Owings Mills, Maryland.  The private club has hosted USGA and LPGA tournaments since opening thirty years ago, but the BMW was its first PGA Tour event.  Cantlay and DeChambeau, who began the final round tied for the lead and remained so eighteen holes later, finished regulation play at a whopping 27-under par. 

Last week the venue was Liberty National Golf Club, with its stunning views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.  The course has hosted a playoff event multiple times, sharing the duty for the Northern Trust with TPC Boston for the past few years, and was also the site of the Presidents’ Cup in 2017.  At this year’s playoff tournament, eventual winner Tony Finau and Cam Smith were both 20-under par after 72 holes.  One year ago, when the Northern Trust was played thirty minutes south of Boston, winner Dustin Johnson signed for a four-day total of 30-under par.  While Johnson all but lapped the field, runner-up Harris English’s final score of 19-under was more than good enough to win at many of the Tour’s weekly stops.

But shouldn’t the playoffs be something other than just another weekly stop for the PGA Tour’s traveling circus?  The answer to the equivalent question in other sports is “absolutely.”  Whether the trophy being sought is named after a former coach (NFL), league boss (NBA), the guy who donated it almost 130 years ago (NHL), or just for the generic position of owner’s lackey (MLB), everyone knows that come playoff time, players raise their game, and the action is even more intense than usual.  But the PGA Tour, which sets up every tournament’s course to its liking, seems content to have the venues for at least its first two postseason events play like they were hosting an Insurance Company Open in the middle of May.

To be sure, no fan is about to confuse these tournaments with the majors, and to be fair, because golf is played outdoors in a natural setting (relatively speaking), weather can disrupt the best-laid plans to have a course play tight and fast.  It’s likely that Caves Valley was softer than the Tour might have wished after the Baltimore area was visited by persistent rain in the days leading up to the tournament.  But while it should not be expected that the playoff events will serve as a late summer reprise of the U.S. Open, par should still mean something.  At the Northern Trust, a golfer had to be under par after two rounds just to make the cut.  And at the BMW, where there was no cut, every player in the field was in red numbers by the end of the tournament.

The counterpoint, that birdies and eagles are more exciting to watch than golfers scrambling to make par, is very much a matter of opinion.  Was watching DeChambeau make back-to-back eagles on Saturday, given Cave Valley’s wide fairways and soft greens, more compelling than seeing him save par by getting up and down from 150 yards out after hitting his drive into the creek to the right of the 18th hole during the playoff?  Whatever one’s answer, the reality is that a course set up for scoring turns any tournament into a putting contest.  Given that, it’s no wonder that Cantlay won, since the Tour’s putting stats had him gaining more than 3.5 strokes per round with the flatstick.  But if the purpose of the playoffs is to award the best golfer, the venues should test all aspects of the game.

That’s likely to be the case at East Lake, where the true best score, setting aside the phony starting adjustments the Tour has used since 2019, is typically around 10-under.   But since that’s true at the last stop of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the obvious question is, why does the PGA Tour wait so long?

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