News & Opinion

In Tour playoffs, winning isn’t everything

As the PGA Tour prepared for negotiations on its next television contract in the fall of 2005, it devised a concept to offset a changing landscape and gain some all-important leverage in its talks with the networks. Although Tiger Woods had driven purse sizes through the stratosphere and continued to add premium value to pro golf’s marquee tournaments, the Tour didn’t have TV rights to any of the majors and was showing signs of suffering from the rich-get-richer syndrome.

Ratings basically were flat across the board. Numerous standard Tour stops were struggling to hold title sponsors. Woods and most of his primary competitors were playing in fewer than half of the 45 or so events each season. What’s more, Woods and Phil Mickelson had publicly lobbied to tighten the schedule by a considerable amount.

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Tim Finchem, the former commissioner of the PGA Tour, installed the season-ending playoffs beginning in 2007.

The big boys weren’t the only ones barking. “The networks started grumbling,” says a source involved in the process. “Too many sellers in the marketplace. The Fall Series wasn’t working very well, and that’s what led to the idea of a regular-season championship and the playoffs. It became a negotiating tool in trying to create a more valuable property in terms of fan appeal.”

And so, the FedEx Cup was conceived. A repackaged product with more horsepower and a bit less fat, the concept remains a significant improvement over how things used to be, which isn’t to say it has been wildly successful. The basic structure since its 2007 debut has remained the same: 125 players qualify for the postseason, 30 advance to the finale at the Tour Championship and lots of golfers make a ton of money. From there, the dials on the formula have been constantly adjusted, leading to confusion among the public, criticism from the media and a certain amount of ambiguity among the participants.

The Tour rolls out its latest version of the mad dash for beaucoup cash this week in New Jersey, and yes, more changes have been made. A four-event postseason has been reduced to three, and at long last, the issue of placing too much emphasis on the final event in determining the overall champion has been addressed. The player atop the standings heading into East Lake in two weeks will be accorded a two-stroke advantage on his closest pursuer, a three-shot edge over the No. 3 seed and 10 strokes on the men occupying spots 26 through 30.

This sliding scale may not be the perfect solution, but it’s a good start to fixing the ill-conceived finish that has plagued the playoffs since 2008. That was the year when Vijay Singh won the first two postseason tournaments and clinched the $10 million prize a week later, which would have made perfect sense if Camilo Villegas hadn’t won the final two gatherings. Basically, Camp Ponte Vedra flipped out. The cumulative system was overhauled, and in a nearsighted attempt to generate suspense and chain golf fans to their TVs just as the NFL season hit its stride, the Tour went too far in the other direction.

Bill Haas, Brandt Snedeker, Billy Horschel … If you got hot at East Lake, you could pay for the world’s largest clambake and still take the next three years off, which a couple of them did.

With a nod to that press-conference rant by former NFL coach Jim Mora, we’re talking payoffs, not playoffs. “At its inception, the year-end part was called the Championship Series,” a relevant source recently told me. “In retrospect, they should have stuck with that name, but everybody thought ‘playoffs’ sounded better, and obviously, fans knew what a playoff was.

“The nomenclature of calling it the playoffs has been a challenge. ‘Playoffs’ mean you win or go home.”

Fourteen years after the idea was hatched, it’s easy to see how the Tour simply has tried too hard to make its FedEx Cup franchise a super-gigantic, colossal, massive big deal. The project may not be the centerpiece of Tim Finchem’s 22-year tenure as commissioner, but it definitely makes his Mount Rushmore. This might have led to having too many chefs standing over the broth, given that a high priority in the boss’s eye can turn into a high-stakes game of office politics.

Or at the very least, a three-hour game of musical chairs held right next to an open bar. “In the initial four or five years, there was a lot of confusion [within Tour ranks] as to what it actually meant to win the FedEx Cup,” the source said. “There were internal riffs and disagreements, and there were some within the ranks who were very opposed to the direction it was taking. Even some of the Tour brass had problems with it.”

Just as the Tour ceaselessly campaigns the prestige of the Players Championship, as if it should be deemed worthy of major status, it markets the FedEx Cup playoffs in almost oppressive fashion. No crime there, except that Brooks Koepka could have three lousy weeks in August and still not fumble away Player of the Year honors. It’s a done deal because the majors tell us who’s the best. That’s the whole purpose of having just four tournaments of greater importance than the dozens of others.

I asked a couple of veteran golf sages to grade the FedEx Cup playoffs over their 12-year existence. One gave it a B, the other a C-plus to B-minus. I’ll go with a C because it’s still a work in progress, because the original concept of a “championship series” hasn’t forged a strong-enough identity to register with the sporting mainstream or initiate anything resembling water-cooler buzz.

The pot of gold appropriated to the winner has risen to $15 million, a fortune so immense that it should come with a can of anti-complacency repellent and one of those orange lifejackets. The problem? There is no rainbow. There ain’t a cloud in the sky over Camp Ponte Vedra, and sometimes, the sun shines so brightly that it blinds a man with even the strongest of vision.

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