News & Opinion

Playoff buzz fades in a New York minute

Folks here call it the Connecticut peace sign, a slightly modified version of the popular, 1960s original – we don’t bother using the index finger. A lovable South African giant named Ernie Els was making his first visit to the tri-state area back in 1994 to play in the PGA Tour stop at Westchester Country Club.

Young Els and his wife, Liezl, were stunned by the pace and intensity of the highway traffic, and when the Big Easy realized he was about to miss the exit to the golf course, he panicked and made a sudden lane change.

“This guy laid on the horn and flipped me the bird,” Els recalled years later. “It was like our official welcome to New York. Liezl and I were laughing so hard, we got off the ramp and had to pull over.”

When Bethpage Black hosted its first U.S. Open in 2002, the massive galleries were merciless toward Sergio Garcia, who was regripping the club perhaps a dozen times over every shot. Garcia would become so worn out by the ridicule that on the 16th hole of the second round, he fired back with his middle finger.

Life in the big city ain’t for everyone, but if you love golf, the golf will love you right back. Nowhere in America will you find more world-class courses, which is why so many major championships are played within shouting distance of New York City – emphasis on the shouting. It’s the people here who make this a great golf town, a place where big tournaments are infused with an extra bolt of electricity, where men in collared shirts and dress pants are loved and lambasted like the guys with baseball mitts or football helmets.

Since its 2007 inception, the FedEx Cup playoffs always have kicked off in the New York metropolitan area. On Sunday, Bryson DeChambeau cruised to a four-stroke victory in the Northern Trust (scores). And for all the attempts to make the postseason series a really big deal, its inability to sustain or even claim this market’s interest is a fair indication that it hasn’t grown in status as the PGA Tour originally had planned.

Hey, the playoffs still are better than a lengthened procession of weak-field Fall Series events. A vast majority of the game’s stars still show up for all four gatherings – that number shrinks to three when the postseason begins earlier in August in 2019 – but the same issues that plagued the series when it was conceived remain problems today.

Too many players (125) make it in, a prime example of how the PGA Tour caters to its middle class. Too many guys make it to the Tour Championship finale; nobody who ranks 29th in the standings should be able to win the overall title with one hot week. In a competitive context, there are too many loopholes to take the concept seriously, and after 11 years, it’s reasonable to believe that those flaws are stunting the playoffs’ progress.

If you started with the top 60 in New York and cut it to 30, then chopped it to eight and sent them off to battle in a match-play conclusion, then you’ve got a product that mainstream America can wrap its arms around. Nothing was going to change while Tim Finchem was running the show, but second-year commissioner Jay Monahan has shown an open mind to new ideas.

Moving the playoffs away from the start of football season was a decision that should have been made years ago. Finchem saw the success of NASCAR in the mid-2000s and approved a postseason format similar to the one used in auto racing. Nowadays, that circuit is dealing with unprecedented struggles, notably its worst TV ratings since the invention of the wheel.

Pro golf had Tiger Woods at his peak. If the Tour measures success by its commercial viability compared with other sports, the game would become only as popular as he made it. The same obviously still holds true today, but the meal ticket won’t be around forever. The Tour needs to find new stimuli if it wants to develop a larger share of the sporting marketplace. A killer playoff format certainly could help accomplish that.

More than anything, however, golf is a game that clings to its traditional roots perhaps more than any other. A relatively new competitive enterprise such as the FedEx Cup is easy to pick on, easy to find fault with. Though it never will matter as much as any of the major championships, it can generate excitement and enhance interest with a livelier, less player-friendly identity.

You want to make $10 million in one weekend? Go out and earn it. Any New Yorker will tell you that.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com