Keeping Score

On balance, Tour playoff formula adds up

Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover stands 29th on the FedEx Cup points list going into this week’s Tour Championship

ATLANTA – Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover stands 29th on the FedEx Cup points list going into this week’s Tour Championship.

That means Glover will start the tour’s grand finale 10 strokes behind Justin Thomas, who vaulted atop the FedEx Cup points list by winning last week’s BMW Championship.

Ten shots back?

“That’s not abnormal,” a bemused Glover said Tuesday morning at East Lake Golf Club. “I think he [Thomas] beat me by 10 shots last week, too.”

Justin Thomas
Justin Thomas, who won last week’s BMW Championship to move to No. 1 in the PGA Tour's season standings, will start this week’s Tour Championship with a 2-stroke lead and at 10 under, according to the revised FedEx Cup formula.

Prepare to be confused. The FedEx Cup has had that effect on fans ever since it was introduced 12 years ago. The complicated old scoring system finally got a serious makeover, something like turning the U.S.S. Saratoga into a tequila party boat. It’s a stark upgrade, even if not everybody in the Navy thinks so.

Call it FedEx Cup 4.0, and with its unique staggered start, it’s the best version so far. For the first time in its existence, I don’t hate the FedEx Cup format. I might even be starting to like it. Ignore that rumbling in the background. That’s just Mount Kilimanjaro toppling over in disbelief over my change of tune.

For starters, the FedEx Cup playoffs have been mistitled since Day One. They were never playoffs. The top players were practically guaranteed a spot here at East Lake. There was usually zero drama as the fields shrank from 125 to 100 to 70 to 30 in the four successive tournaments.

They were never real playoffs because TV was scared that it would get another WGC Match Play Championship, in which Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson often lost in the early rounds. That became so unpalatable for TV that the Match Play was watered down to a round-robin format, to keep the stars employed for a three-day minimum.

With the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour wanted a reward for players who had the best seasons and also a finish resembling a playoff. Those are opposing goals. It’s like the Air Force wanting a good fighter-bomber. A good fighter is no good for bombing, and a good bomber isn’t much of a fighter. Any compromise produces something that’s not good at either.

Ditto, Tour Championships past.

This year, the FedEx Cup is different, and not just because first prize vaulted from $10 million to $15 million, almost Powerball money. You’re going to notice how different right away. I can already hear some guy popping open a cold one on the couch Thursday and saying, “Marge, get in here, quick! Justin Thomas is 10 under par through two holes!”

This is where the scoring debate begins, but it’s part of what the PGA Tour finally got right.

You’re going to see a staggered start. Thomas begins the Tour Championship at 10 under par. Patrick Cantlay, ranked No. 2 in points, is 8 under; Brooks Koepka, No. 3, is 7 under; Patrick Reed, fourth, is 6 under; and Rory McIlroy, fifth, is 5 under. Each subsequent group of five players (ranked 6-10, 11-15, etc.) begins an additional stroke back, with players ranked 26th-30th teeing off at even par, 10 shots behind Thomas (tee times).

By eliminating points and replacing them with strokes, the scoring confusion that required Golf Channel’s Steve Sands to give frequent points updates during the telecasts is gone (“Sands caps error-free era in Tour playoffs,” Aug. 20). Now, the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup title have merged into one entity. All we have to do is look at the leaderboard – what?? – to see who’s winning. It’s not a novel concept.

The inequity at the starting line has thrown many traditionalists for a loop. Stop the whining. It’s not much different than last year, when the 30 players were assigned different starting point values. In fact, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said the staggered strokes format is within a percentage point of last year’s points system for almost all 30 spots. Except now we can use a traditional leaderboard to follow the scores.

“It’s hard to say whether it’s better, because we haven’t played it yet,” Reed said. “What it does for the players, there’s a lot more clarity. This week, you know where you need to be and where you need to get to, because the leaderboard tells you.”

Once play begins, the scoreboard will make it all clear. It will be a hurdle for golf traditionalists this first time out, but here’s a tip: Get over it.

All right, it’s not all as smooth as yogurt. It’s possible that a player will shoot the lowest 72-hole score this week and not win the FedEx Cup because he started too far back. There is only one trophy, and that’s for the winner. Unlike past years, there will be no separate Tour Championship winner. So, the medalist will be a mere asterisk. He also will be handsomely rewarded from the $70 million bonus pool.

In other asterisk news, players will be awarded Official World Golf Ranking points based on the actual scores they shoot this week, not the totals including the FedEx Cup bonus strokes. I don’t see many fans scoring along at home with the world rankings, though, so I’m not bothered by it.

The new FedEx Cup format is mainly a matter of viewpoint.

“It’s really not a four-round tournament,” NBC golf analyst Paul Azinger said. “It’s a four-round conclusion. It’s the culmination of 43 tournaments and the points you’ve acquired.”

Players facing the biggest deficits still have 72 holes to overcome them. They also had all season to avoid them.

“It’s different and it’s weird, but I had control over it,” Glover said. “I could have played better earlier in the year.”

The other improvement gets less talk but is just as key. The points awarded for the first two “playoff” events were quadruple the normal totals. A regular Tour victory was worth 500 points, a major championship came with 600 points and a victory at the first two playoff events, the Northern Trust and BMW Championship, was worth 2,000 points – three-plus times more than the Masters.

Does that sound out of whack? It’s supposed to. The weighted numbers are what finally give the new FedEx Cup the sense of being a playoff. Great teams get bounced out of the playoffs in the first round in every sport. Now golf has it, too. Two players who won majors, Tiger Woods and Shane Lowry, didn’t make it to Atlanta. Koepka dominated the year with three victories and finished 2-1-2-4 in the four majors, yet he was relegated to third in points. Reed went into the playoffs in the No. 50 position and a bleak outlook. Then he won his way to a preferred shot at the big prize.

“The Tour is trying to emphasize the playoffs,” Reed said. “You win; you move on. You lose; you don’t. They inflate the points so much to make it interesting. In college basketball, for instance, you make it to March Madness and your record means nothing when you get to the tournament. If you lose, you’re not moving on.”

So, the FedEx Cup has inched closer to being actual an playoff and has switched to a unique, if controversial, scoring system that is much easier to follow.

This sounds suspiciously like progress. That can’t be right, can it?

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


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