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August 19, 2007

The hype and expectations are huge.

(AP) -- A blockbuster end to the PGA TOUR. season. A season-long points competition. A bonus worth five times the typical first-place check.

If that sounds like the FedExCup, turn back the calendar to the age of persimmon woods and sansabelt pants.

This was the Vantage Championship in 1986, and it was designed to give the PGA TOUR a compelling finish. That became the precursor to the TOUR Championship, which soon became a tournament for the rich to get richer at the end of a very long year in golf.

Enter the FedExCup, the biggest shake-up in golf during Tim Finchem's 13 years as commissioner.

For the last 50 years, the American pro golf season has been defined by four major championships that begin in April with the Masters and end in August with the PGA Championship. The FedExCup is a points race that starts with the opening tee shot at the Mercedes-Benz Championship at Kapalua and concludes with four "playoff" events that start this coming week outside New York.

The winner gets a $10 million retirement annuity, which the TOUR touts as the richest prize in sports.

Phil Mickelson compared it with a new event in 1934 called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, which later became known as the Masters and now ranks among the most prestigious in golf.

"There's a good chance the FedExCup will one day have that same allure," Mickelson said. "There's also a chance that four years from now, it will be a flop. I don't know."

Under this cloud of uncertainty, the FedExCup heads toward a conclusion when The Barclays starts Thursday at Westchester Country Club with 143 players who qualify for the "PGA Tour Playoffs" (with ponts leader Tiger Woods skipping this event.

Week by week, the field will be whittled down until the top 30 reach Atlanta for the TOUR Championship at East Lake.

"It's going to be interesting to see how everything holds up," Woods said. "It's a lot of golf later in the year."

To make it happen, Finchem overhauled a schedule that had been virtually the same for more than 20 years.

He took two events from the middle of the summer and crammed them into the four-week stretch that comprise the playoffs. He moved five events from the heart of the schedule and stuck them in the fall, after the FedExCup is over, knowing they would have minimal relevance and weak fields. And he persuaded parcel shipping company FedEx to pour $40 million into the plan, hopeful the best players would buy into it.

The idea was for golf to be compelling beyond the majors, and before football takes over the imagination of the sports-watching public. The TOUR Championship ends Sept. 16, seven weeks earlier than last year.

"The reason other sports find it easy to define their seasons is because it's always about the end," Finchem said when he first started to put together the pieces of the FedExCup. "Not only do we have a weak ending, it's overshadowed by spikes of interest you have from big tournaments. We need a culminating event that's special and that you have to play hard to get into."

Despite a massive marketing blitz, players are still slow to explain how it works.

"I don't know nothing about the FedExCup," Boo Weekley said at the recent PGA Championship. "I just know I'm playing golf, and that's all that matters to me."

Here's the executive summary on the FedExCup:

-- Points have been awarded from the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship through the Wyndham Championship, with the top 144 players eligible for The Barclays.

-- Points are reset going into the playoffs to keep someone like Woods from having too large of an advantage. Woods finished the regular season about 11,000 points ahead of Vijay Singh. When the playoffs begin, Woods will be the No. 1 seed with 100,000 points, while Singh is No. 2 with 99,000 points. The 144th player starts at 84,700.

-- The winner of each of the first three playoff events gets 9,000 points, with 5,400 points for second on down to 85 points for last place. The TOUR Championship offers 10,300 points for first place.

It's a lot of math for players to digest, especially since they grew up studying a money list that got them into the TOUR Championship.

"I don't know the breakdown of every point total, like what 15th place is, but I've got a general idea of what's going on," Chad Campbell said. "I know if I finish first in the next three events, I'll be doing all right."