News & Opinion

PGA Tour’s season-ending gimmick goes gonzo

PGA Tour FedEx Cup
The FedEx Cup, which will be awarded to the winner of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, adds some shine to a fuzzy season-ending format.

The problem with all of this fuzzy math: Somebody could shoot the lowest gross score in the Tour Championship and not win, but at least the Official World Golf Ranking won’t be duped by the dollars

It’s golf’s version of starting extra innings with a runner on second base. Maybe it’s all right for an emergency, but it’s still a novelty and never would belong in the playoffs or a “real” season.

That’s what the format looks like for the Tour Championship, which begins Friday at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Dustin Johnson, No. 1 on the FedEx Cup points list, will start the tournament at 10 under par without having to hit a shot.

Jon Rahm, No. 2, will begin at 8 under, Justin Thomas at 7 under, all the way down to Nos. 26-30, who will hit their first tee shots standing at even par, which is where you’re supposed to start, but they will be 10 shots behind before the first ball is in the air.

Normally, the Tour Championship is not much more than a delivery vehicle for $15 million, which is the FedEx Cup winner’s share of the $60 million bonus pool. But the season-ending event on the PGA Tour is so much more consequential this year that it’s a shame it has to be decided with a gimmick.

With only one major championship having been played in 2020, no Players Championship and only two WGC events, the Tour Championship now becomes one of the most important events of the season. It could go a long way toward determining the PGA Tour’s player of the year and a number of other awards.

And the Tour is using a tournament that could be won by a player who doesn’t necessarily shoot the lowest score. Doesn’t seem like real golf, does it?

The FedEx Cup playoffs have been experimental ever since they were devised by the PGA Tour and introduced in 2007. The points system was complicated, therefore difficult to understand. In the beginning, there were four playoff events. In 2008, Vijay Singh won two of the first three tournaments, giving him enough points to win the FedEx Cup, as long as he teed it up in all four rounds of the Tour Championship without getting disqualified.

Tweaks and adjustments have been made to the points and playoff system practically every year since. Golf fans still had trouble figuring out who was ahead on the Sunday of the Tour Championship.

We’d love to wipe from our hard drive the memory of Golf Channel’s Steve Sands and his whiteboard and dry-erase marker on the final-round NBC telecast, adding and subtracting points for those players not necessarily in the Tour Championship lead but who still were leading the FedEx Cup. It was, at times, dizzying and, at others, baffling.

However, even after all of the four-figure, middle-school math, the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup usually crowned the same player. On only four occasions since 2007 has the Tour Championship winner been different than the FedEx Cup champion.

But the Tour wanted (more) simplicity and devised a way to guarantee that it would give two trophies and two checks to the same player after the final round. The present format, first used last year, was supposed to give an advantage to the players who accumulated the most points through the regular season and first two playoff events. It’s meant to make it more difficult for the lower seeds, because the winner of the Tour Championship wins the FedEx Cup and the $15 million bonus.

And the first year worked exactly as Tour officials envisioned. Rory McIlroy started at 5 under and shot 13 under on his own ball and won the event at 18 under. As it turned out, he shot the best (gross) score of anyone in the 30-player field.

But there’s an inherent danger with this system: Someone could shoot the best gross score and not win. And that’s a problem. In fact, the Official World Golf Ranking ignores the players’ starting scores and uses only the 72-hole gross scores when it assigns ranking points for the Tour Championship.

For instance, Thomas tied for third at last year’s Tour Championship, at 13 under. But his gross score of 3 under placed him T-9 for world-ranking points. Which makes the Tour’s system simply a manipulation of a tournament to get its desired outcome.

If that’s all the Tour wants, then it should do away with the Tour Championship, which has its own purse and trophy. Simply call the last event the FedEx Cup Final and use it any way it wants to distribute the bonus money. The FedEx Cup Final wouldn’t need to be an official Tour event, thereby no world-ranking points.

But the Tour Championship can’t be eliminated because of the Tour’s relationship with Coca-Cola, one of its biggest sponsors. Money always drives the bus at the PGA Tour, which is the way of the world.

But you can’t conjure up a gimmick, wave a wand over it and, by magic, produce a legitimate competition. The runner on second gets stranded every time.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.