Keeping Score

Tour does a number on new playoff math

R.I.P. to the dry-erase board. So long to NBC’s Steve Sands trying to explain an unexplainable mathematical equation during the final round of the Tour Championship

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – R.I.P. to the dry-erase board. So long to NBC’s Steve Sands trying to explain an unexplainable mathematical equation during the final round of the Tour Championship. The PGA Tour finally has conceded that its FedEx Cup playoff points system was just too darn confusing.

This should be cause for celebration, except that better doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve got it right. The new scoring system might fizzle like New Coke.

As the FedEx Cup playoffs kick off today at the Northern Trust at Liberty National Golf Club, not far from where Lady Liberty stands sentinel in the Upper New York Bay, the chase begins for $15 million. That’s a healthy bump of $5 million more for the winner and a total season-long bonus pool spike from $35 million to a cool $60 million. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, this is not. This is still a cash grab.

“It’s never about the money until it’s all about the money,” NBC’s Paul Azinger said.

If you want to see golfers playing for their jobs this week, kindly flip over to the undercard that is the Portland Open, where 25 promotions to the big leagues will be at stake.

It didn't take much for the Tour to improve upon its previous iteration of the playoffs. But for starters, the champion will be crowned in late August, before the NFL and college football season hijack the attention of sports fans. To do so, there are only three playoff events, down from four. So if you sleep through your alarm and get DQ’d for missing your pro-am tee time, as Jim Furyk did in 2010, it won’t be as easy to skip an event and still win it all, as he did. As Adam Scott put it, “I think it dragged out a bit too long.”

With one fewer playoff event, the field of 125 will be trimmed Sunday to the top 70, who will get to play in the BMW Championship in Chicago before the top 30 qualify for the Tour Championship in Atlanta. But the biggest – and most controversial – change is that instead of a points reset before the finale, the powers-that-be have concocted a staggered start by which the FedEx Cup leader begins the tournament at 10 under, No. 2 at 8 under, No. 3 at 7 under, No. 4 at 6 under and No. 5 at 5 under. Players 6-10 will be at 4 under, 11-15 at 3 under, 16-20 at 2 under, 21-25 at 1 under and 26-30 will start at even par. Under this new scoring system, only one winner will be crowned on Sunday: the overall FedEx Cup champion.

Brooks Koepka (right) and Rory McIlroy rank Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the FedEx Cup standings as the PGA Tour playoffs begin today.

Brooks Koepka (right) and Rory McIlroy rank Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the FedEx Cup standings as the PGA Tour playoffs begin today.

“It simplifies it,” Rory McIlroy said.

In other words, no longer will you have a situation where the winner doesn’t even know that they won. See Bill Haas, 2011 Tour Championship.

Under the old scenario, Justin Rose, last year’s champion, didn’t win a single playoff event and took home the $10 million jackpot despite Bryson DeChambeau having won two of the four playoff events. Similar scenarios happened when Camilo Villegas (2008), McIlroy (2012) and Jason Day (2015) won multiple times and didn’t cash the mega-millions check.

The PGA Tour, in its due diligence, showed the players that if you were to have applied this new format to the 12 previous FedEx Cups, you would have gotten a different winner only twice: Villegas in 2008 and Luke Donald in 2011. Otherwise, same winner, less confusion.

But what the Tour has termed “starting strokes” feels hokey, as it stopped just short of putting two dots on the scorecard at the No. 1-handicap hole, like some mixed-member guest.

“What’s your mindset? Seeing that score is going to be weird,” McIlroy said.

It’s the equivalent of rewarding a team home-field advantage in the playoffs based on year-long performance. But in golf, it doesn’t pass the smell test. Wanna talk about weird? Had the staggered scoring been in effect last season, Woods wouldn’t have won his 80th Tour title at East Lake and turned the grounds into his personal Lollapalooza. Woods enters the Northern Trust at No. 28 in the FedEx Cup standings. If his position were to remain unchanged, he’d be staring at a 10-stroke deficit.

“It's going to be weird for all of us because we've never really done that,” Woods said. “We've all been 10 back after one day with 54 holes to go or 36 to go, or Paul Lawrie in '99 with one to go [at the British Open]. But starting out 10 back, it could be different for the guys who are there. It really puts a premium on placement of going into that week and where you're seeded. You don't want to be too far back. You don't want to give any top player too far of a lead and too big of a head start, especially the way Brooksy [Koepka] has been playing the big events.”

There’s that word weird again. You know what would be a PR disaster? What if Woods were to repeat his performance and shoot the low 72-hole score, but not be crowned the champion because of the “starting strokes”? Instead of celebrating Woods tying Sam Snead’s Tour record of 82 titles, they’d have to cancel the victory tour. Talk about an asterisk.

I’m not sure whether the Tour’s thousands of computer simulations considered such a scenario, but it could happen. So could Koepka being in the driver seat and then lapping the field for three days, as he did at the PGA Championship. Who’s tuning in if Koepka leads by 17 on Sunday? It’s possible.

On McIlroy’s podcast, his co-host, NBC’s Carson Daly, asked point blank: “What’s the inside word with the Tour players? Are they happy with the playoffs?”

“I think so…,” McIlroy said.

Hearing the unconvincing tone of McIlroy’s voice, Daly cut in and said, “All, right; that means, ‘No.’ ”

“I still think it’s had a hard time to capture the public’s imagination, and I think that’s why they’re still changing the format,” McIlroy said.

And here’s guessing that in a few years’ time, the Tour will be tweaking the format again.

The players have $60 million reasons to sing the praises of the new way of keeping score – “At least people know where they stand,” is the best McIlroy could muster – but here’s all you need to know about what they really think of this change: Their precious world-ranking points will be based on how players perform in the 72-hole tournament at East Lake without the handicapping. No trophy, no dollars and no public scoreboard, but a prize to play for, all the same.


Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email:; Twitter: @adamschupak

Related Stories