News & Opinion

End of another era for Tour playoffs

Playoffs?! I just hope we can win a game!”

Jim Mora’s oft-YouTubed rant on sports’ postseasons, which the Indianapolis Colts coach sputtered in a news conference after a turnover-laden loss to the San Francisco 49ers in 2001, remains entertaining – but perhaps not relevant. Back then, playoffs were a simpler thing: a gathering of the best from the regular season (the main event) to crown a champion.

But in the modern sports universe, it’s not that simple. Postseasons have become seasons unto themselves, with more games, longer series and separate marketing campaigns. Once, you simply had to be the best regular-season team in the American or National league to get to the World Series, where you only had to win one best-of-seven series. Now, a low-seeded baseball wild card must win 12 of as many as 20 games to become world champion. And how about the NHL’s postseason, which can take two months before the winner hoists the Stanley Cup? (Hockey’s regular season lasts six months.)    

So, with the rest of sports only laying on more postseason games, why is the PGA Tour trimming its 12-year-old FedEx Cup playoff format?  

Starting in the 2018-19 season, the four-event playoff schedule used by the Tour for the first 11 years of the FedEx Cup will be reduced to three. And the whole shebang will be over in August – before college and pro football really get going.

But is this just a question of hitting it where they ain’t on the schedule, to borrow another sport’s metaphor? Not entirely, says the Tour. Seen from an historical perspective, this could be fine-tuning.

“What would the Tour look like today if the Tour Championship still were played in late October?” said Andy Pazder, the Tour’s chief tournaments and competitions officer. “From a very high-level view, even a biased observer would say the idea has succeeded. We brought together the very best players three more times in a season. If for no other reason than that, it’s been wildly successful.”

Pazder, a 29-year Tour executive-staff veteran, has been there for the life of the FedEx Cup, from former commissioner Tim Finchem’s announcement of the idea in 2004 to the initial building blocks in 2005 to the inauguration in 2007. That included criticism and adjustment in the early years.

“A credible points system was one of the chief objectives,” Pazder said. “And yes, we have had to tweak, as we did after Vijay Singh had the 2008 FedEx Cup wrapped up before he struck a shot at the Tour Championship that year.”

But the long game, as it were, was always more complicated than that. The idea was to “carry fan interest into the later stages of the summer,” Pazder said. Tacking three limited-field events onto the calendar before the Tour Championship seemed like the right prescription. And it did produce drama, as fields narrowed from 125 to 100 to 70 and finally 30 in the finale. But the possibility of fatigue from playing four in a row led some players to pick and choose, drawing criticism from fans and the media. The inclusion of an off week within the four-event run didn’t help much – and had the playoffs poking dangerously into the interest-and-excitement window that football claims every year.

Two events instead of three before the Tour Championship will erase the need for that off week, Pazder said. And it will amp up the drama by curtailing opportunities to get to a “safe” place in the points standings before the cuts start happening.

“Better not be hovering around 102nd in points by the end of the first tournament,” Pazder said. Under the new structure, the first event still will feature a field of 125 – but the cut for the second event goes all the way to top 70 in FedEx Cup points, not just 100.

Now that the new schedule will avoid football (and Olympic golf, every four years), is FedEx Cup tweaking essentially done in Year 12?

“I think from a scheduling standpoint, the answer to that is yes,” Pazder said. Measuring success will be a complicated mix of judgment and entertainment-industry higher math, including player reaction, sentiment among traditional and developing audience segments, TV ratings and digital-content traffic.

And no amount of tweaking can create perfection. As to the week-off need and potential event-skipping, that’s ultimately up to the player. And they do as they please. This week’s for-instance: Rory McIlroy, No. 7 on the Official World Golf Ranking, won’t be playing this week at the first playoff event, the Northern Trust at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J. (FedEx Cup standings).

If the Tour is to maintain players’ status as independent contractors, which is crucial to its business model, the player-choice element will have to stay that way. But if fan interest indeed carries through as the Tour intends, uneroded by football, we may be entering a long period of stability for the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Adam Barr has surveyed golf for 25 years as a print and broadcast journalist (Golfweek, Golf Channel), an equipment company executive, and with the USGA as director of communications and its museum. He lives in Basking Ridge, N.J. Email: adambarr1@gmail.com; Twitter: @ABNarratesBooks