August 26, 2007

A Dream Or A Nightmare?

The FedEx Cup absolutely, positively has to be on time...not this year Mr. Finchem

What if good triumphs over excellent in the FedEx Cup?

What if good triumphs over excellent in the FedEx Cup?

For most of the past decade Steve Stricker has been known as the answer to an off-beat golf trivia question: Who are Mark Steinberg's three golf clients. Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam and Stricker. How did Sticker get into the mix? He was Steinberg's college roommate at Illinois. But with his victory Sunday at The Barclays Stricker generates an entirely different question: Is he Tim Finchem's dream or his nightmare?

Stricker, who until Sunday had one PGA Tour victory in the last 11 years, is now the leader of the FedEx Cup with three more events to play. The good news for Finchem is that Woods returns from vacation this week at the Deutsche Bank Championship, the second leg of an increasingly wobbly table. The bad news is this: What will the entire first 33 weeks of the PGA Tour season have meant if Stricker wins the FedEx Cup?

That might be a question Woods has pondered a few times while sitting out the first of the four playoff events. Certainly, when the boys in Ponte Vedra sit down and do a post mortem on the inaugural Fed Ex Cup -- and you know they will tweak something, they are too smart not too -- they might want to revisit that whole point reset thing. Tiger had an 11,000-point lead based on five victories, which included a major championship. That was cut to a 1,000-point lead in the reshuffle.

So what happened as a result of Stricker winning and Woods taking the week off is that Stricker is now No. 1 with 104,950 FedEx Cup points and Woods is fourth with 100,000, trailing K.J. Choi and Rory Sabbatini. Vijay Singh, who was second behind Woods with 99,000 points going into The Barclays, missed the cut and earned no points. So here's the question: If Stricker wins the FedEx Cup is that a good thing for the tour or a bad thing?

The answer is probably this: Depends on how he does it. If Sticker finishes second, for instance, in the next three events ends up with the most points that would be pretty unsatisfying. If he won another of these darn things then that would be validation of some sort. But always lurking is the Tiger Factor. Whether he plays or not, whether he wins the FedEx Cup or not the guy is sitting there with five victories, including a major championship and two World Golf Championship events.

Maybe the problem here is the way the event as been presented. In reality it is not so much a season-ending playoff as it is a unique format for an event that comes at the end of the season. Nothing will be determined by the FedEx Cup -- at least not this year -- except to determine who gets the $10 million annuity. The champion of this season is Tiger Woods -- case closed.

Perhaps there will come a year when everything is on the line going into the FedEx Cup. Perhaps a year when Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els each have four victories and a major. In a situation like that Player of the Year would be at stake and it really would be a playoff to determine -- as the folks at the Open Championship say -- the champion golfer of the year.

But let's not throw the format out just because the real player of the year might not win. What Stricker's victory at The Barclays did was giving us a taste of how dramatic the next three weeks could turn out to be. What we have to keep in perspective here -- and the tour may have done itself, and its fans, a disservice by raising expectations too high -- is the significance of the outcome. The winner will merely be the winner of the FedEx Cup.

And as Fred Couples once famously said: "I'm not great I'm good, but good's not bad." Exactly. The FedEx Cup will no more determine the champion golfer of the 2007 PGA Tour season than the Players will determine the winner of the fifth major. There is no fifth major, and there never will be. And success in the majors will, almost always, be the deciding factor in settling Player of the Year disputes.

Here's the best case scenario for this year's FedEx Cup: The standings stay pretty much the way they are, Stricker takes a lead into the Tour Championship with Tiger sitting in fourth place, and Woods comes from behind to win. The first FedEx Cup would be won by the truly best player of 2007.

The problem with the FedEx Cup is not the format but rather the expectations created by the hype machine around it. The winner will be the person who has prevailed over a 288-hole tournament -- or in the case of Woods a 216-hole tournament. That's pretty exciting in and of itself and it is without question going to be well worth the watching to see how things come out.

Speaking of watching, the overnight ratings for The Barclays was a 2.1, up slightly from the 2.0 the tournament got last year when it was played in June. The tournament played last year on the same week as this year's Barclays -- the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational -- got a 6.2 rating, 66 percent higher than Sunday.

Finchem likes to talk about the FedEx Cup creating a TV ratings bump like the team sports get in their playoffs. The fact is those ratings bumps occur for golf in the major championships, the Ryder Cup and when Tiger is doing something special. That Bridgestone event last year that got a 6.2 ratings not only had Woods in the field -- unlike this year's Barclays -- but he won and he won in a four-hole playoff.

Golf has a built-in TV ratings bump. It's called Tiger Woods. The FedEx Cup most likely will not drive viewership up significantly, and it most certainly will not determine the champion player of the year -- at least not by itself. But that is not to say its unique and compelling format will not provide good entertainment. Hey, it beats whatever the heck was going on last year at this time in men's professional golf.