News & Opinion

Tour playoff pays off but still needs work

It’s still a money grab – always will be – a long walk to a very large bank, with cash falling from the sky every step of the way. The difference now is equity. When the FedEx Cup playoffs were first held 12 years ago, the regular season had a substantial bearing on who would claim the overall crown a month later. It was a logical system based on long-term performance, which is what a postseason is all about.

So, the PGA Tour blew up its formula two years later and devised a four-day sprint for $10 million at the Tour Championship, sparing no expense in an attempt to create artificial suspense. It rendered the other playoff events somewhat meaningless. It also nullified the value of the three dozen or so tournaments before that, which allowed guys like Bill Haas, Brandt Snedeker and Billy Horschel to swipe the commissioner’s checkbook with a stretch of well-timed, short-lived excellence.

What we saw this past week in Atlanta was an educated compromise between commercial idealism and competitive integrity, also timely in that it happened not a moment too soon. The Tour’s adoption of a staggered scoring system at East Lake was certainly a success, enhanced not only by a marquee leaderboard but a golf course set up to challenge anybody worthy of walking away with what is now a $15 million prize.

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Rory McIlroy finds 15 million reasons to smile Sunday in Atlanta after winning the PGA Tour’s season finale.

© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Rory McIlroy finds 15 million reasons to smile Sunday in Atlanta after winning the PGA Tour’s season finale.

As if any of these guys really needed a 50 percent raise.

What did require a boost was the notion that the regular season should matter. The refined format accomplished the task, but there is room to make it better. Start with Patrick Reed and Justin Thomas, winners of the first two postseason tilts. Both are name players and recent major champions who failed to reach their usual standards in 2019. Thomas was bothered by an injured wrist for much of the spring. Reed was just another struggling golfer, and neither had won a tournament this season before his playoff victory.

That Thomas arrived at East Lake with a three-stroke lead over Brooks Koepka was absurd. Almost as silly as Reed – whose only top-five finish during the entire regular season came at the weak-field event in Detroit – sat just one shot behind a guy who won the PGA Championship, finished fourth or better at all four majors, claimed a WGC title and an early-season triumph in Korea en route to terminating any discussion as to the identity of the world’s best player.

Koepka couldn’t be blamed for wanting to stick a dagger in the stagger, but the stroke-reward system served its purpose. Rory McIlroy emerged from Saturday’s weather-related suspension to shoot 7 under on his first 26 holes Sunday, separating himself on the final nine to join Tiger Woods as the only multiple FedEx Cup champions. Having teed off Thursday afternoon five strokes behind Thomas, McIlroy posted a 72-hole total of 13 under at East Lake that was the best real aggregate of the week by three shots (scores).

If nobody actually deserves $15 million for winning a golf tournament, the lad from Northern Ireland submitted the strongest claim, which testifies to the upside of staggered scoring. The unbalanced leaderboard left little room for a one-week wonder to hijack the massive pot, a scenario that has plagued FedEx Cups in the past. It seemed a bit awkward at the start of play, but once the world’s best began blowing drives into the testy Bermudagrass rough and rolling 15-footers 6 feet past the hole, the concept of a competitive cushion began to make more sense.

East Lake yielded just two scores lower than 66 all week: an opening 64 by Xander Schauffele that was matched by Chez Reavie a day later. After the shameless scoring avalanche a week earlier at Medinah, where Thomas slapped around one of America’s most menacing layouts with a winning score of 25 under, the difficult conditions in Atlanta were a welcome element to the proceedings, given what was at stake. Rarely has East Lake proved to be such a bully during its 15-year tenure as the Tour Championship’s permanent host, but this event looked a lot like a major championship with a much, much larger piggybank.

Still, let’s not get too giddy. If the greens are like marshmallows and the rough is hardly a deterrent, we easily could see someone leap from the basement and scarf the whole enchilada one of these years. The stagger has some swagger after a successful debut, but the Tour really should explore the idea of providing stroke rewards at the beginning of the playoffs, not just before the season-finale.

It’s a delicate and somewhat subjective balance, trying to calibrate a system that acknowledges the big picture but adds drama, pressure and common sense to the closing act. That the Tour proceeded with this change was a big deal in itself, although making something better does not make it perfect. Camp Ponte Vedra should consider its postseason to be a season of its own, which necessitates the idea of assigning stroke advantages earlier, when they would have a greater effect on the final results.

Superstars get the VIP treatment, the middle class gets a fledgling chance, and everyone gets to make that long walk to a very large bank. Check, please.

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