August 27, 2009

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For all of the FedEx Cup Playoff's flaws, there are players who know these four tournaments are worth their full attention

A player like Paul Goydos has more to gain from the FedEx Cup than a Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.

A player like Paul Goydos has more to gain from the FedEx Cup than a Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Somewhere in the handbook for the PGA Tour's elite, there must be a section on how to portray indifference when it comes to the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

A shrug of the shoulders. Palms to the air. The inevitable claim of not understanding the point system.

"I don't know," U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover said on Wednesday. "I haven't thought about it."

"I haven't looked at the points," Phil Mickelson said. "I just know if you play well, you do well."

Listen to a handful of tour players and you get the impression they don't know how the points work, who gets them, and what it means once they all have them. We're so clueless, they seem to say, it's a wonder we even make it to the golf course. Here's all they need to know this week: if you're among the top 100 in the FedEx Cup points standings after The Barclays, you move on to Week 2 at the Deutsche Bank in Boston. Otherwise, you're out.

But that apathy is only one side of this late-summer scramble that began Thursday at Liberty National. Because for every Mickelson and Tiger Woods who measure their careers in major championship increments, there are players who know enough of the playoff system to know it could play directly into their hands.

Consider Paul Goydos, who won the last of his two PGA Tour events in 2007, and whose best finish in a major this season was a T-67 in the PGA. By any other measure, the closest Goydos should come to a trophy rewarding a full season's worth of work is if he passed by it in the locker room. But beginning Thursday in The Barclays, where he shared the first-round lead with a six-under-par 65, Goydos can at least entertain thoughts of a $10 million grand prize.

"It's not going to be a perfect system no matter what they do," said Goydos, who began the week 49th in the points standings. "But this one is pretty good."

It is to Goydos, at least. After two anticlimactic FedEx Cups that resulted in two off-seasons of tinkering, a knock against the latest version is that a player who does nothing for most of the season can still run off with the Cup at the Tour Championship next month.

Come to think of it, is that such a bad thing?

"If it's me, it's great," cracked Mark Calcavecchia, who sits at 111th in the FedEx Cup points standings but opened with a 69 Thursday.

Laugh all you want. But the way the current system is constructed, any of the 125 players who get hot these next four tournaments have a chance to steal the spotlight. Sure, the theory goes, four weeks is more than enough time for the tour's own Darwinian tendencies to play out -- i.e. the strong survive, the weak start gearing up for the Fall Series. But if you subscribe to the belief that the talent on tour is deeper than ever, then that also means someone you probably didn't expect is going to sneak into the picture.

And to many in the field this week, the urgency of these events is exactly the point.

"That's what the playoffs are all about," said Kevin Streelman, who opened with a 68. "The Yankees have the best record this season, but if they lose the first playoff series, they're done. I don't think they're entitled to get to the championship. The players who play the best these four weeks should win. You should be ranked or seeded higher based on how you've done, but that's it."

Perhaps, but the new volatility of the points system has also allowed for some doomsday scenarios. One could be Woods, the No. 1 seed and the game's golden goose still not qualifying for the Tour Championship; another could be a player winning the first three events and still not winning the whole thing.

"I think that if they get a scenario where somebody wins the first three events and finishes second in the fourth but the guy who is fifth in the points events wins the FedEx Cup, I think you'll have something to write about," Goydos said. "But in my opinion, the more you guys write about it, the better it is for us anyways. Controversy in a sense is what draws people's attention."

So is unpredictability. If we knew who was going to win the whole time, there'd be no point in watching -- which is essentially what happened the last two years. And if it so happens a guy comes out of nowhere to win this year's FedEx Cup, then at least he'd have something in common with this year's major champions.