I have a confession to make. I have never watched a single hole of the FedEx Cup. I can tell you that it’s the PGA Tour’s playoff. I know that Brandt Snedeker won last year and that Tiger Woods has previously captured the trophy. And that’s about it.
Now, I support golf whenever the sport shows any progressive tendencies. The playoff was and remains a great idea on paper. But in practice it all feels a little forced if not invented. When the last putt falls at the Tour Championship the story will be about who will receive the $10 million prize more than who won the season long event.
A few things hurt the FedEx Cup, one of which the PGA can control, the other it can’t. The latter of the two hindrances is the timing. Golf’s climactic event falls in the middle of pennant fever in baseball and the early seasons of both college and professional football. Good luck drawing in the casual audience.
The PGA does have control of the structure of the competition though. The year long system, which rewards players for wins, cuts made, and high finishes during the season, makes sense in that the Tour wants its best players playing for the biggest financial prize.
Once we get into “playoff” season, however, the process becomes a bit convoluted. The top 125 players in the FedEx standings qualify for the four tournament finale. Each winner of the initial stages, the Barclays, the Deutsche Bank Championship, and the BMW Championship, will be rewarded 2,500 points as opposed to the regular season prize of around 500 points. After each event, the standings will be recalculated and the lowest players will be removed from the race accordingly. One hundred players will compete in the Deutsche Bank Championship, seventy will play for the BMW Championship, before a final thirty duke it out for the hefty check.
The idea (or hope) is that the thirty best golfers will be left to compete for the Tour Championship and, it can’t be stated enough, that money. Again, in theory this creates some intrigue. But the whole system leaves the door open for a player to go winless throughout the four tournaments and still collect the payday. If Tiger, for example, who currently leads the FedEx standings, remains in first through the BMW, he’ll start the Tour Championship with 2,500 points when the standings reset (To ostensibly give every one a chance to win, the leader will be set at 2,500, second place at 1,500, and so on and so forth. Here’s a tylenol.)
Tiger need only qualify for the finale by playing well enough to hold his lead and then hope either he or someone well off the pace wins the Tour Championship. It’s therefore not inconceivable to think that a player with zero playoffs wins will be crowned champion.
At this point you’re likely asking “Do you have a better idea?” to which I answer “probably.” The PGA Tour effectively starts its season with a matchplay tournament. Why not determine a champion with one?
The first three tournaments of the playoffs can stay as quasi-qualifiers. But instead of thirty emerging for the Tour Championship, the top thirty-two will advance. The players will be seeded 1-8 based on standings with the top four overall receiving number 1 seeds. This leaves endless possibilities for Sunday showdowns; Tiger vs. Phil, Bubba vs. Duf-daddy, Scott vs. Day…
Matchplay golf succeeds because it brings emotion out of our most stoic athletes. For every Keegan Bradley leaping fist pump, there’s a fiery glare from Ian Poulter, both of whom should qualify for the final event. Gamesmanship enters into the equation. You might give an opponent a two foot putt any other weekend of the year, but with ten million bones on the line he better sink it.
Walter Hagen built his career on matchplay. In fact, all six of his PGA Championships were won under the matchplay format. And then there’s Hagen’s 12 and 11 victory over Bobby Jones in the planned 72 hole “Match of the Century.” A matchplay championship would revive interest in “The Haig,” which is regrettably lacking in the modern game.
Seve Ballesteros, the swashbuckling Spaniard, made his name by stupefying Americans in Ryder Cups with shots no one had ever seen before. His gamesmanship is held in reverence to this day.
The spirit of Seve and Hagen is the spirit of personality. Matchplay allows those personalities to take root. Eventually legacies form.
Right now the FedEx Cup needs a jolt of excitement. Five years on and it’s still all about the money. Most sports fans probably think it’s one of college football’s 456 bowls instead of Golf’s postseason event. We need this matchplay. I want this matchplay. How many of you do too?