Keeping Score

Playoff projections bring future into focus

When Matt Kuchar ran in a curling 54-footer for birdie at the par-3 16th hole at TPC Boston on Sunday during the third round of the Dell Technologies Championship (scores), it was a stroke that actually meant very little in the tournament’s bigger picture. The leaders were just teeing off, and Kuchar was hovering just inside the top 20.

But the TV graphic on Golf Channel told the “rest” of the story: The birdie moved Kuchar from 72nd to 64th in the FedEx Cup playoff standings, lifting him to the proper side of the bubble in his quest to qualify for the BMW Championship that begins Thursday in Philadelphia. The top 70 in the standings after today’s final round at TPC Boston will qualify for the third of four season-ending playoff events.

As the graphic quickly flashes and the broadcast moves on to the next player, it all seems so seamless, so simple. But behind the scenes, a small team of five or six works feverishly to keep viewers updated in real time as to what is going on in the often complicated and convoluted playoff race.

“Yeah, it’s pretty hectic,” said Alex Turnbull, 37, director of broadcasting for the PGA Tour, who oftentimes during the final playoff stretch will be sitting in a production truck, helping everyone involved in the telecast to tell better the stories that are unfolding. “But it’s fun.”

Turnbull and others like him are similar to accountants who get pumped up for tax season. The FedEx Cup is now in its 12th edition, and to boil it down to basics, it has become a compelling and interesting way to finish a long golf season – one that, in years gone by, finished with a gentle, irrelevant fizzle, the way a final puff of air leaves a balloon.

The concept was to get the Tour’s top players competing in meaningful tournaments in the final weeks of the season. The winner takes home $10 million, a sum big enough even to get the attention of multimillionaires. Call it a win-win for players and fans.

But the FedEx Cup scoring system, a points-based operation partly built to mirror what NASCAR does in its homestretch, is not an easy algorithm to follow. Points are quadrupled in the postseason; fans would swoon into dizzy spells when Golf Channel/NBC broadcaster Steve Sands would break out his famous white board, scribbling formulas and scenarios and possibilities. (Thankfully, that was retired last fall.)

So, the endless quest of the FedEx Cup has been to get tweaked continually in the interest of simplicity – there’s even a new par-based, not points-based, scoring system for the 2019 Tour Championship expected to be rolled out soon.

As smooth as things might appear from the couch, on the inside, there is lots of real-time work being done, much like the image of a duck gently gliding down a glassy pond when underneath the feet are paddling furiously.

In the early days of the FedEx Cup, the players were as clueless as the rest of us. They’d compete, sign their card, step out in front of a bank of cameras and invariably be asked about their thoughts as to where they stood in the FedEx Cup race. There would be a common refrain: “I have no idea.”

Tom Alter of the PGA Tour helps keep players informed of the ever-changing points projections in the playoffs.

It took until 2011, the fifth year of the FedEx Cup, for the Tour to decide it would be helpful to provide a little mathematical assistance to its players. Tom Alter, whose day-to-day duties in his years with the PGA Tour mainly have been in television production, was asked to take on an added role: He’d become the liaison between the players and this hard-to-figure points system. He’ll be in the scoring trailer today at TPC Boston when players finish, letting them know exactly where they stand at the midway point of the playoffs.

“We knew early on that it wasn’t a good look when a player came out of scoring and would say, ‘I really don’t know what’s going on,’ ” said Alter, 56, the Tour’s vice president of editorial development. “So, we realized we should brief the players, help let them know what is going on, so that they’d sound smarter in their interviews. And I think that’s worked pretty well.”

The exercise has not been without the occasional hiccup. It has taken everyone some time to refine the process. Alter recalls a year when he told golfer Robert Streb that he was a lock to advance to the BMW; instead, Streb finished outside the top 70.

“What we realized,” Alter said, “is that there is a lot of fluctuation, and you have to be very patient. (Henrik Stenson went on a late birdie run that year at TPC Boston, stealing precious points from Streb.)

"I felt bad about the misinformation, and went out of my way to get ahold of him; he couldn’t have been any more gracious," Alter said. "I’ve been a big Robert Streb fan ever since.”

In Alter’s role, there have been some moments of great joy, too. When Shawn Stefani made a 6-footer for birdie and a final-round 66 two years ago at Wyndham, Alter got to be the guy to tell Stefani that his finish was enough to lock down a spot in the top 125. Stefani would be keeping his job for the next season, and he was playoff-bound.

Stefani burst into tears.

There have been crazy moments in the FedEx Cup series, too, from Brandt Snedeker’s final-hole four-putt at the BMW in 2009 to miss the Tour Championship to Rickie Fowler being nipped by .57 of a FedEx Cup point by Charl Schwartzel two years ago to get bumped from the top 30 and a date at East Lake.

The adage really is true these days on the PGA Tour: Every stroke counts. And behind the scenes there’s a crew running mock scenarios and models to make projections as to how it will all sort out. What if the guy sitting at No. 70 late today bogeys his last hole? Who's in then? And what happens if he birdies? Turnbull, Alter and Co. work the various possibilities. As projections go, each final round in the FedEx Cup playoffs turns into its own version of election night.

“It just adds another element of drama to the storytelling process that otherwise you [as a viewer] wouldn’t have known,” Turnbull said. “Initially, the idea of even having projections was something that really hadn’t been done. If the tournament ends right now, where does everyone finish? That was unheard of, in a lot of respects.”

If there is advice to be passed along from those on the inside, Alter stresses patience, lots of it, and Turnbull says to keep an eye on green and red colors on TV leaderboards. Green is good; those in red are on the outside.

Turnbull won’t be in the production truck today at TPC Boston. No, instead of crunching numbers and possibilities, he'll be home in Florida, taking on a different pressure-filled situation: He’s about to become a first-time dad.

That trumps any golfer's $10 million FedEx Cup bonus.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62

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