When it comes to the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup, it is a love-hate relationship for me. I love the idea of the FedEx Cup playoffs – the concept of bringing the game’s best players together more often at season’s end to compete for a crowning achievement. I just hate the way the tour does it – typical 72-hole events stacked in favor of the favorites.
Let’s be real – Xander Schauffele won the Tour Championship last year but Dustin Johnson has his trophy. Schauffele shot 15-under-par 265 last summer at East Lake Golf Club, three strokes better than Scottie Scheffler and four better than DJ. The Official World Golf Rankings recognizes Schauffele as the “winner,” giving him the most world ranking points for his performance that week. But the PGA Tour presented Johnson with the trophy and the $15 million check because it gave him a head start at 10-under par – seven strokes ahead of where Schauffele began the week.
The idea of the PGA Tour giving strokes to the No. 1 player in the world as if he were a 10-handicapper facing a field of scratch players is an abomination. If that staggered stroke system had been in effect two years earlier when Tiger Woods authored his emotional comeback victory, but the tour decided to give the trophy to Justin Rose instead, that 2019 crowd that swarmed the arena in spontaneous celebration might have been carrying pitchforks for the commissioner.
The PGA Tour knows it doesn’t have the formula right or it wouldn’t be tweaking it every few years. Unfortunately, its current system is the most “fixed” yet, and that’s the crux of the problem. Even Jon Rahm, one of this year’s favorites, said, “I don’t like it; I don’t think it’s fair.” Stop trying to call something “playoffs,” when the basic tenet of your system is designed to favor the status quo. That’s not how sports are supposed to work. Sure, other leagues might grant the best teams byes, homefield advantage and a weighted bracket as reward for their season performance, but when the actual postseason competition starts, every contestant is on equal footing. Winner takes all.
The PGA Tour deserves credit for its initial outside-the-box thinking that devised the FedEx Cup in the first place. But its ongoing flaw is keeping one foot inside the box trying to manipulate its data to protect the leaders, who typically represent most of golf’s marquee inventory. With a little more creativity and guts, the tour could protect and reward its talent stock, while also developing something more entertaining for the marketplace at the same time. With lucrative threats from proposed rival upstarts like the Premier and Super golf leagues, now is a critical time for the PGA Tour to make the right moves to protect its turf as well as its audience.
Here’s one modest proposal from someone who’s attended a lot of Tour Championships and keeps wishing it was a more satisfying finale:
SEASON-LONG REWARDS: Considering the PGA Tour wants to stave off deep-pocketed rivals, rewarding its own marquee performers is paramount. So there should naturally be some significant benefits for the players who stand atop the points list at the end of a long regular season.
The equivalent portion of the current bonus pool should be allocated to the top 125 players before the playoffs ever start. Collin Morikawa edged out Jordan Spieth by 32 points in the standings this season, so he should receive the top bonus – let’s say $15 million. Then pay bonuses to the rest of the qualified guys on the same current sliding scale. This would encourage even the best players to compete down the stretch of the regular season to improve their bonus claim.
That season-long success should have another common benefit heading into the playoffs – byes for the best. The top 10 players should automatically qualify for the Tour Championship. This is pretty much already the case under the current system, since it’s all but mathematically impossible for the top 10 players to tumble out of the top 30 in two weeks. But securing a spot at East Lake would be further incentive to compete to the very end of the regular season.
The PGA Tour can also stipulate that ALL qualified players must compete in at least one of the two playoff events before East Lake. The whole point of the system is to stimulate competition among golf’s best, so the sponsors deserve that support from the top stars.
None of this is too radical. Where the PGA Tour needs to up its game is by creating an actual playoff for the remaining 20 spots into the Tour Championship.
PLAYOFF EVENTS: As part of its on-going tweaks, the FedEx Cup reduced its schedule to only two events leading into East Lake, trimming the field from 125 to 70 to 30. The system, however, still heavily favors the players who start at the top of the points list.
A true playoff guarantees nothing to the competitors. A wild-card team like the Tampa Bay Bucs last year can play on the road every week, but still have as much chance to win the Super Bowl as the team with the best regular-season record that earned a bye and home-field advantage. Or the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament could be eliminated by a 16 seed one season, and then turn around and win the championship a year later. These things happen. That’s the beauty of sports.
As with the playoff events, everyone who qualifies for the Tour Championship should have an equal opportunity to win the FedEx Cup. Nobody should get a 10-shot head start on anyone else.
Golf’s current FedEx Cup system is rigged to protect the favorites. And that diminishes it. Every one of the 125 players who qualify for it should have an equal chance of advancing and winning it all. It would raise the stakes of each individual event and spark more interest.
Each of the two playoff events should have full fields. The top five finishers (not otherwise qualified) from each event earn a spot at East Lake – with a playoff for the last of those five spots, if necessary. The seven-man playoff for the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics illustrated just how compelling it can be to compete for third place. And the playoffs for the last match-play spots in major amateur events are often the most dramatic elements of the championships.
At this point you have 20 automatic qualifiers for East Lake. The remaining 10 spots can be given based on cumulative points accrued in the two playoff events. In case of any ties, “compare scorecards” using the regular-season points ranking as a tiebreaker.
GRAND FINALE: As with the playoff events, everyone who qualifies for the Tour Championship should have an equal opportunity to win the FedEx Cup. Nobody should get a 10-shot head start on anyone else.
This is where the PGA Tour can get really creative with a format to make its finale stand out. Anything but a 72-hole stroke-play finish, please. As for the pot of cash at stake, if the PGA Tour could find $40 million to fund a kitty for its Player Impact Program, they can certainly scrounge up another obscene purse for its postseason finalists.
With Coca-Cola on board as a major sponsor, perhaps creating a three-course, Atlanta-area rota that incorporates Atlanta Athletic Club and hallowed Peachtree with East Lake as rotating venues. That would keep from favoring the same horses for one particular course every season and spice things up for the viewer.
The real key to juicing the drama – eliminations. Nobody really cares to watch guys 15 to 20 shots off the lead competing for 27th place, so pare down the field along the way. A 36-hole cut to go from 30 to 16 (with a playoff for the 16th spot, if necessary) would be a simple start. Then another 54-hole cut to get down to the final eight, with a playoff for the last spot, if necessary.
Now you have plenty of creative options to determine the FedEx Cup champion. Start from scratch and have an 18-hole shootout. Or seed them into a match-play bracket, with nine-hole elimination matches culling the field to the final twosome for an 18-hole showdown for the playoff crown.
But to truly stand out, a little made-for-TV drama would elevate it the way the Home Run Derby highlights Major League Baseball’s All-Star break. If you schedule the Tour Championship for Labor Day weekend, crown the playoff champion on Sunday and then on Monday have a $10 million Champions Skins Game – worth a half-million dollars per hole, plus $250,000 closest-to-the-pin bonuses – pitting the FedEx champ, the winners of each playoff event and the regular-season points leader (filling out the foursome from the season-long points list, if necessary).
You think the top players would want to defect to a rival tour when they can potentially win $15 million regular-season bonus, another huge playoff bonus AND play one more round with $10 million on the table? That’s plenty to keep them happy and not grousing about “fairness,” while also engaging the golf audience hungry for something high stakes and different.
The PGA Tour has reached a place where it’s up for creating a spicier system. It’s already implementing new aspects of its alliance with the European Tour, winnowing the number of WGC events and boosting some overseas tournaments with purse increases and co-sanctioning status. I suspect it has more up its sleeve.
Unveiling a new, more volatile FedEx Cup playoff structure would be enriching for everyone.
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