As it is with politics and pimento cheese, everyone seems to have an opinion about the FedEx Cup playoffs.
To some, they’re little more than three regular PGA Tour events spruced up with outrageous amounts of money and tied together by a points system that’s harder to understand than self-installing cable television hardware.
To others, the playoffs (go ahead, say it because you probably hear former football coach Jim Mora in your head: “Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs”) are a cleverly contrived way to turn what could have been wasted space into a proper conclusion to a season that doesn’t fit the calendar.
I like the playoffs – even when hurricanes interfere.
Or, as that great philosopher Ted Lasso might say, “$60 million for three golf tournaments? Yes, ma’am, sign me up. And pass the biscuits.”
Ideally, the professional golf season would begin in January at Kapalua and end about the time the leaves begin to turn up North (also known as the fourth week of college football season down South).
... while it would feel better if it happened deeper into the fall, the American fascination with football season pushed the tour to claim August for its grand finale even if everyone has sweat stains on their sleeves ...
It would be tidy from a calendar perspective and allow a three-month break from the never-ending churn of tournaments that now take up more weekends than youth soccer. I also long for the days when most people read a daily newspaper and had the ink-stained fingers to prove it, but times have changed.
That’s how the PGA Tour schedule worked through 2006. Under the old schedule, there was a World Golf Championship event at Firestone this week followed by the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Canadian Open with a Ryder Cup in late September. It was nice.
The Tour Championship was the first week in November at East Lake (which sidestepped the humidity that blankets Atlanta in late August). The concept of the Tour Championship in that format was greater than its impact. It tended to get lost, or at least felt anticlimactic.
That’s why the FedEx Cup playoffs have made a positive difference. The events have elevated the season-ending push and, while it would feel better if it happened deeper into the fall, the American fascination with football season pushed the tour to claim August for its grand finale even if everyone has sweat stains on their sleeves from wiping their foreheads in the dog days heat.
In time the playoffs have developed their own story. Bill Haas splashing his way to the FedEx Cup championship. Billy Horschel in those ugly plaid pants going full Florida Gator upon winning the cup. Henrik Stenson practically rolling his eyes after Jordan Spieth holed another bomb to beat him.
And, of course, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson posing together, each holding a trophy in 2009 – Woods for the FedEx Cup, Mickelson for winning the Tour Championship.
One week into this year’s three-tournament run the storyline already has a contribution from Hurricane Henri.
The PGA Tour did a good thing when it reduced the number of playoff events from four to three even if that means that Boston, Chicago and New York don’t host events every other year or so. As it is with Augusta National, the tour is open to tinkering with its prize possession.
What it needs to do next is adjust the format again, specifically the Tour Championship. If you’re looking to me for the perfect solution, I don’t have it but I feel there’s something better than what’s in place at the end. The potential of a true clunker of a finish still exists.
The tour came up with a novel concept in starting the 30 players who qualify for East Lake at a predetermined score based on how they played through the regular season and the two playoff events where the points awarded balloon dramatically.
Collin Morikawa went to Liberty National as the points leader. But by missing the cut, he’s projected to fall to sixth. That’s not exactly no-man’s land but he’ll need a high finish in the BMW Championship at Caves Valley this week to strengthen his position in Atlanta.
That’s where the player who has played the best begins with a head start, in this case teeing it up at 10-under on Thursday morning at East Lake. Whoever is second in points starts at 8-under and so on down the line to where no one starts worse than even par – or 10 shots behind.
Last year, Dustin Johnson won the FedEx Cup even though Xander Schauffele shot the lowest score in Atlanta – by four strokes. DJ had won the first playoff event and finished T2 in the second event to stake himself to a lead in the Tour Championship.
Did the best player get rewarded?
Yes, but …
In 2019, Rory McIlroy started the Tour Championship five strokes behind but shot the lowest score, made up the difference and won the FedEx Cup and its $15 million prize. It validated that the system can work and it did eliminate the election night-like white board calculations that accompanied the previous format.
Still, the entire season is played one way and in the last event, the scoring is changed.
Jon Rahm, the man most likely to win the FedEx Cup this year, complained about the format last week, saying he felt the current system is unfair. He could win the first two events but a bad week at East Lake could cost him.
That’s the idea.
That’s where the playoffs concept comes into play. In most playoffs, it’s win or go home. There’s an element of that in the FedEx Cup playoffs, cutting from 125 to 70 to 30 players but that’s trimming compared to cutting down the entire tree.
Other ideas have been floated. Keeping a cumulative score across the three events. Starting fresh in the playoffs, cutting the lowest finishers after each event regardless of their season to that point. A big-money shootout among the top-four finishers at East Lake. Going back to the way it was with the potential of two winners on Sunday like Phil and Tiger in ’09.
The FedEx Cup playoffs have accomplished their goal: They’ve made the end of the season compelling rather than a slow fade into the fall.
Two years into the new format, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson have won the big prize.
Fair to say, they’ve gotten it right so far.
Top: Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka in 2019