News & Opinion

Finally, Tour playoffs that make sense

FedEx Cup points always have been golf’s equivalent of debentures: hard to understand and not remotely interesting.

I used to feel sorry for Golf Channel’s Steve Sands when the cameras turned to him for a FedEx Cup points update during the season-ending Tour Championship. FedEx Cup points were a Rubik’s Cube that didn’t sit still, and Sands arm-wrestled the numbers as well as anyone could.

Points were a bad idea for any number of reasons but mainly because one player’s birdie – or bogey – can change another player’s score. There was no way for a viewer to follow along at home and, worse, no way a viewer would want to try.

Back your pickup truck over your Rubik’s Cube, folks. The FedEx Cup is getting a major renovation next year, and it’s not mere cosmetic surgery. This is remaking the Hunchback of Notre Dame into, say, Pat Sajak.

The transformation starts with shrinking the so-called playoffs from four tournaments to three. Less is always less, but in this case, less is a relief. Tour players were enticed – some would say obligated – into playing six tournaments in eight weeks, not something that most elite players want to do. This 25-percent reduction was needed. There’s a possibility that the $10 million winner’s prize will be upped slightly, too. Yeah, who can scrape by on a crummy $10 mill anymore? I get it.

The biggest change, however, is what Doug Ferguson, the Associated Press’ golf writer, has reported, citing several unnamed Tour sources: FedEx Cup points will be jettisoned for next year’s Tour Championship finale – only 12 years too late – and replaced by strokes in what I guess you’d call a staggered start.

The player ranked first in FedEx Cup points after the BMW Championship will start the tournament at 10 under par without having hit a shot. The other 29 players will be positioned at appropriate intervals behind that, based on their relative point positions.

The details, if they’re finalized, haven’t leaked yet, so it’s not clear how high the pre-assigned scores will go. Would the 30th player in the field start at even par and have only 10 shots to make up? That almost doesn’t seem like enough of a gap over four rounds because 10 shots can be made up in a day. Plus, it would leave 28 players grouped within eight strokes, making the difference between fifth and 25th negligible. A slightly wider spread from first to 30th may make more sense. Or maybe not.

No matter how the PGA Tour rejiggers it, though, this is a major improvement and a great idea. It also happens to be one that I have suggested repeatedly over the past decade. Players, fans and media never could get a handle on the complex points system. They all understand scores in relation to par.

That’s why I believed a better scoring method than FedEx Cup points would be cumulative scores relative to par for all four FedEx Cup events. I would have awarded a bonus for winning each event – say five strokes, maybe seven. Throughout the FedEx Cup, we always would know where each player stood in relation to that week’s leaderboard and the overall FedEx Cup leaders.

My plan had flaws, too. Players who missed the cut in either of the first two events would be eliminated. That seems fair … unless Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson would miss a cut. Then it’s a disastrous idea for TV. Also, there would have been no guarantee of a close finish. Somebody could go into the final weekend at East Lake with a 12- or 14-shot lead, presaging stink-bomb TV ratings.

The Tour’s new iteration smartly moves us out of points and back into strokes versus par, a significant upgrade. Golf Channel won’t have to supply Sands with a whiteboard or a calculator any longer.

Plus, there never will be two champions on the podium Sunday night again. Last year, Xander Schauffele won the Tour Championship, edging Justin Thomas by one stroke, but Thomas claimed the FedEx Cup and the $10 million, even though he was still a bit miffed about not winning the tournament.

Two of the greatest moments in FedEx Cup history were awkward ones that never will happen again. One was in 2011, when Bill Haas outlasted Hunter Mahan in a playoff that featured Haas getting up and down for par from out of a lake. When Haas finally won the Tour Championship, he idly asked then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem who had won the FedEx Cup title. Finchem answered, “You did.” Oh.

The other came in 2009 when Phil Mickelson won the Tour Championship but archrival Tiger Woods earned the FedEx Cup. Mickelson was a winner but still couldn’t one-up Woods.

"So, let's get this right,” Mickelson said then. “Tiger shoots [70] and I shoot 65. He gets a check for 10 million and I get one for…” He waited out the laughter, then added, “I'm joking, of course."

The all-time FedEx Cup highlight was the rare circumstance of a playoff in 2010 when we all knew the score, something the format wasn’t designed to do. Jim Furyk, his hat turned backward, made a putt in the rain to win $10 million when he knew it was a putt to win $10 million. That was cool.

Furyk’s big-putt situation won’t be as rare now. Since the Tour Championship effectively is the FedEx Cup in this new format, we should get many more chances to see who can make a $10 million putt and who can’t.

This sounds interesting. And fun.

Finally.

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