News & Opinion

FedEx Cup Payoffs: It’s time to cash in

The FedEx Cup turns 10 this week. Happy birthday, you old codger.

No need for presents, everyone. The FedEx Cup has been the biggest, richest, best-est, over-the-top gift ever. Who doesn’t like cash, especially when it comes in stupid-large sums?

I can’t lie and say I am a fan of the FedEx Cup. It has failed on so many levels. The convoluted points system, for starters. In 10 years, I have yet to hear one fan or one fellow writer talk about the points and discuss who needs what to advance to the next event. Nobody cares, and every year I feel sorry for Golf Channel’s Steve Sands or whoever has to get out a chalkboard and try to explain the latest standings.

The FedEx Cup isn’t a true reward for the regular season. A player who won 40 tournaments and the first three FedEx Cup playoff events would start the Tour Championship with exactly the same pre-fab minor advantage as anyone else ranked No. 1.

The FedEx Cup isn’t a real playoff, either. No big names get eliminated unless they had a super-stinko season. The PGA Tour and its television affiliates didn’t dare risk not having Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the final event. Those two superstars were why the FedEx Cup was invented in 2007. As for the fields being reduced from 125 players to 100 to 70 to 30 as we go through four events, not much drama materializes because the public has minimal rooting interest in those typically lesser-known golfers.

The FedEx Cup is a cash grab, pure and simple. That makes it far less interesting than golf’s four majors or the Players Championship or the Memorial Tournament or the old World Match Play Championship when it was single elimination. (Yes, that was a freaking playoff!)

The reasons I’m not a FedEx Cup fan don’t matter, however. The FedEx Cup has been a huge success despite its gaping flaws. It accomplished the only thing that did matter. It forced golf’s biggest names to show up and play.

The points rarely have mattered, save for 2010, when Jim Furyk knew he had a 2½-foot putt to win the $10 million bonus, and he drained it. When Bill Haas won the 2011 Tour Championship in a playoff, though, he asked who had won the FedEx Cup and was told, well, that he had. Oh. Sweet. The points system got tweaked again after that.

The FedEx Cup has produced exciting events not because of its points system but because all of the stars are playing – fans love that – and close finishes are the nature of golf at the elite level. It’s a simple formula for success.

I’m pretty sure you don’t want to go back to 2006, the last year before the FedEx Cup began. Golf looked very different. Seven of the PGA Tour’s first 11 tournaments were sponsored by car manufacturers. Honda still sponsors the Honda Classic, but Mercedes, Buick, Ford, Nissan and Chrysler are gone.

Westchester and Milwaukee had regular tour stops. So did little Farmington, Pa. (84 Lumber Classic) and Endicott, N.Y. (B.C. Open). FBR, Booz Allen and BellSouth sponsored tournaments.

The official PGA Tour season didn’t end until the first weekend in November with the Tour Championship. Woods skipped that ’06 finale, reportedly because he was upset when he learned that the $10 million bonus for the new FedEx Cup finale the next year was going to be paid as an annuity, not cash. Mickelson skipped it, too, for the second straight year. In ’05, he said he had to take his kids trick-or-treating instead.

The big October run-up to the tour’s supposedly grand finale at East Lake in Atlanta looked like this in 2006: Greensboro, Frys.com Open, Walt Disney World and the Chrysler Championship at Innisbrook. Name four tournaments that few, if any, big-name players showed up to play and after a month off, some were known to show up at East Lake and touch their clubs on the range Tuesday for the first time since the World Golf Championship at the start of the month in London. Oh, Mickelson skipped that one, too.

So, the tour had a non-ending. The FedEx Cup’s birth gave it a clear last act, a legitimate mic drop.

This has been an improvement. FedEx must be happy. Its sponsorship costs more than $50 million a year. So, it has dropped half a billion dollars on this thing. Well, FedEx generated $50.4 billion in revenue in the fiscal year that ended in May, so that dough is barely missed. And the phrase “FedEx points” has become part of golf’s language while the term “money list” has disappeared. (Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama is No. 1 in points and money going into The Northern Trust this week, in case you were wondering.) Can you put a price on the value of that? I mean, other than $500 million? No.

Players like the paydays, obviously. While the FedEx Cup champion gets a $10 million bonus, fifth place still gets $1 million, the equivalent of a regular-season victory. A golfer who ranks 100th on the points list earns a $75,000 bonus, and players from 126th to 150th get checks for $32,000 even though they didn’t qualify for the final four events – the “money for nothing” that Dire Straits once boldly sang about, I believe.

Because they’re not true playoffs, I call them the FedEx Cup Payoffs. As long as FedEx pays the bills and CBS and NBC show the thrills, though, nothing else matters. The PGA Tour golf season has an ending that matters now, something that it lacked a decade ago, before FedEx. What seemed like Mission: Impossible for the PGA Tour then has morphed into Mission: Accomplished. 

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle