In every other major sport, regular season performance matters about the same in the post-season, which is to say not at all. At best, it earns home field advantage but has no material impact on the remaining action. Only in the PGA Tour’s playoffs is weight still given to what a man accomplished during the last administration.
The FedEx Cup Playoffs began Thursday with The Northern Trust at Liberty National, which sits a 15-minute ferry ride across the Hudson from lower Manhattan. Now in it’s 15th year, the FedEx Cup has undergone more tweaks than a Wall Street trophy wife. And yet it remains a tweak shy of perfection.
On paper, it seems straightforward: a season-long points race qualifies 125 players for the post-season, in which three tournaments award increased points and progressively reduce the 125 to 70 and, finally, 30 for the finale. That rolling points system ensures regular-season performance has a direct impact on post-season prospects, and that’s unlike every other sport with playoffs, where competitors start afresh from the same position.
This mathematical manipulation stems from a desire on the part of the Tour to partially engineer an outcome, though it would never admit to such. It’s not that the Tour wants to see a particular player win, just that it wants to help star players remain in contention until the end. Elite players are usually flush with FedEx Cup points thanks to the majors and assorted limited field tournaments, so the Tour achieves its goal by ensuring those points still count all the way to the finale in Atlanta two weeks from now.
It’s a crafty methodology, but a counterproductive one because it involves reducing volatility, and volatility is what provides playoffs with drama and shock value.
The aversion to unpredictability runs deep at Tour HQ, and probably has its roots in the WGC-Match Play Championship. To be fair, 36-hole finals pitting Steve Stricker against Pierre Fulke or Kevin Sutherland against Scott McCarron would have any commissioner rethinking his format options. Too many stars being eliminated on day one led to a round-robin group system, which at least guarantees no one goes home until day three. That the format kills the competitive essence of match play—win or go home—was deemed a necessary concession.
The same philosophy of molding the format to protect elite players governs the FedEx Cup. An alternative format exists, and its merits became apparent at the Olympics.
The best drama in Tokyo wasn’t the gold medal-winning performance of Xander Schauffele, but the seven-man playoff for bronze, which included Collin Morikawa, Rory McIlroy and local hero Hideki Matsuyama. It proved that excitement doesn’t exist only at the top of the leaderboard, that scrapping for something other than first prize can be compelling.
Herewith, a counter proposal for the FedEx Cup: Use the points system to qualify 125 guys for the playoffs, but dispense with it at the close of the regular season. In the first post-season tournament—which next year will be the FedEx St. Jude Championship—everyone plays four days with the top 70 finishers in the field moving on to the next stop at the BMW Championship. And if that means a 10-man playoff for the 70th and final spot, all the better. Everyone else goes home. Similarly, only the top 30 finishers at the BMW survive to the Tour Championship.
Last year’s BMW Championship ended with an eight-way tie for 25th. If we conduct an exercise in what-ifs to illustrate what might have been, that would have delivered an 8-for-6 playoff involving Schauffele, Justin Thomas, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott and Kevin Kisner. Surely that has more value for fans and sponsors than totting up of points accumulated over the previous 340-odd days.
Discarding points for the post-season ends the need for the playoffs to culminate with a widely-mocked scoring format at the Tour Championship, where those points are effectively converted into birdies so that the leader in the standings begins the tournament 10-under par, with lesser head starts for those well-placed on the rungs immediately below him. In 2020, Dustin Johnson began the Tour Championship at 10 under and cruised to a FedEx Cup victory. But the winner’s share of world ranking points went to Schauffele, who shot the lowest total of the week, handicapping aside.
Both accomplishments were somewhat cheapened because of a desire to provide an assist to the top-ranked players from the regular season, rather than letting them fight for the Cup like everyone else in true playoff fashion. The focus should and could be solely on the winner of the FedEx Cup, without fans maintaining a shadow scoreboard and sniping about gross and net divisions.
The reliance on points to protect elite players is why Cinderella stories don’t happen in the FedEx Cup.
Take Chesson Hadley. Last week he needed an ace on the way to shooting a final-round 62 at the Wyndham Championship to grab the 125th and final spot in the playoffs over Justin Rose by a single point. Hadley’s story—an unlikely challenger chasing a fairytale ending—would probably generate more fan interest than the prospect of Johnson winning another $15 million. But because points totals still impact matters in the post-season, Hadley’s chances of moving from 125th to inside the top 70 that advance to next week are very slender. If he only needed to finish top 70 in the field this week, rather than top 70 in the rankings, his dream run might well be extended.
The PGA Tour can still reward regular season consistency by extending the Comcast Business Top 10 bonus to bestow greater riches on more players, then let everyone battle for the grand prize on an even playing field. It would be a more authentic and compelling format, one designed to accommodate the possibility of a shock winner rather than minimize it. Because that is both the nature and function of playoffs.
Published at Golfweek.com, August 19, 2021.