News & Opinion

Tour’s new playoffs leave odd endgame

ATLANTA – Like new and improved Tide, which defies the sands of time each time a cart gets pushed down the supermarket aisle, the rejiggered FedEx Cup playoffs in 2018-19 will be better, bolder and more compelling, all at the same time. Oh, and simpler, too. Or so we think.

By August of next year, when the newly condensed PGA Tour season (make way for football!) winds to a close and the three-tournament (down from four) playoff series builds to its thrilling crescendo, PGA Tour pros are going to be so filthy rich that they won’t just be purchasing new yachts, but entire marinas. The guy who takes home the FedEx Cup next year is projected to record a $27 million season. That’ll keep the mortgage hounds away for a good while.

But when we try to get our arms around this new tweak/transformation with the playoffs’ final act, a bright new future at the venerable Tour Championship, something just doesn’t feel right. It’s a little like trying to hug a porcupine. Take heart, all you member-guest warriors out there carrying 14-handicaps to the weekend club dance. At arguably its biggest tournament of the year (right up there with the Players), the PGA Tour is about to hand a huge trophy to the champion of its, ahem, Net Division.

That’s the plan, anyway. Come next August, utilizing a new par-based and not points-based system, the FedEx Cup playoff leader will start the Tour Championship 10 shots ahead of the player pulling into East Lake in 30th place. True, the player at No. 1 has performed better in the regular season and the playoffs and rightfully should enjoy some sort of advantage. Ten shots over 72 holes? That’s about as level a playing field as the side of Mount Everest.

The idea is to let fans follow what’s happening a bit easier, which we understand. But let’s use this week’s participants. No. 1 Bryson DeChambeau, instead of having his points reset, would now start the Tour Championship at 10 under. Players ranked 26-30 – Patton Kizzire is 30th this week – would begin at even par. With everything between them falling just so, Kizzire conceivably could beat DeChambeau by nine shots over four days at East Lake, then watch as DeChambeau is crowned FedEx Cup champion and goes down in the history books as the winner of the Tour Championship ... after another player just beat him by nine.

Strange, no? These are playoffs, right, where everyone scraps for everything? This is like giving your Super Bowl opponent 10 points during the coin toss.

A majority of this new and improved plan makes sense, so this isn’t to downgrade the entire program, because there are way too many positives. Andy Pazder, chief tournament and operations officer, says the Tour tries to assess five key questions at the conclusion of each season’s Tour Championship and FedEx Cup playoffs: Did we crown a deserving champion? Did we create drama in the playoffs? Did we have a schedule our players would consider ideal? Is the system easy for fans to understand? And did the conclusion of the playoffs allow us to have singular focus on the FedEx Cup?

Well, the first three boxes were easy to check. The last two objectives? They needed some work.

There is plenty of good. A shortened season. A trimmed-down (and more meaningful) postseason, narrowing fields from 125 to 70 to 30. Next season’s FedEx Cup bonus pool will grow from $35 to $60 million, with top-10 players who have had great regular seasons also rewarded with a separate $10 million pool from hotel chain Wyndham at the regular-season finale in Greensboro, N.C. At East Lake, some confusion will be alleviated: there will be one champion on the final green on Sunday, not two. You won’t hear the winner of the $10 million FedEx Cup bounty (growing to $15 million next year), having fallen agonizingly short after trying to win the Tour Championship, saying that 10 mil is a nice consolation prize.

And yes, with the transition into a par-based system at the finale, it will be infinitely easier for Joe Six-Pack to follow along from the couch at home. Even if some player might shoot 58 on Thursday … and trail by four.

“Win the Tour Championship,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, “and you are the FedEx Cup champion. It’s that simple.”

Yes, many good things here, but it's that one little hanging chad that makes us uncomfortable. It’s really, really hard to win a golf tournament on the PGA Tour. Now we’re ready to gift an official victory to somebody mostly because of where he started at East Lake, not where he finished? Sorry, that’s just plain odd.

Did the FedEx Cup need a simplification intervention? Absolutely. True story: One of the Tour’s 16-member Player Advisory Council meetings began with a video showing Golf Channel’s Steve Sands and his now-retired white board – upon which Sands would scribble points and scenarios and what might happen – as the final round of the 2016 Tour Championship was set to tee off. You know, he’d say this guy could win if this were to happen, if this guy drops, this guy moves up … you know the deal. The clip ran for 3½ minutes.

So, the points system needed work. The FedEx Cup in its current points form (don’t forget, quadruple points during the playoffs!) is about as easy to follow as the newest U.S. tax code. Boil it down, and yes, the myriad models run by the PGA Tour mirror closely the results we have had using the points system – one or two champions might have been different, the Tour says – but the biggest change is that there no longer will be a true 72-hole champion of the Tour Championship. Sure, we all need to accept change, but it’s still going to be awkward if that player holding the trophy, your celebrated Tour Championship champion, wasn’t the best performer over 72 holes.

“The Tour put this equation together, and when you plug everything in, everything seems to be correct,” said Xander Schauffele, the talented youngster who a year ago won the Tour Championship at East Lake, though not the FedEx Cup (he started 26th). “You know, it’s funny to think of … Obviously it’s going to be kind of weird. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

So, we will wait and see. The Tour says its fans will be happier. They won’t be nearly as pleased as the players’ accountants.

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