Slow Delivery

August 24, 2009

The FedEx Cup has been a success for Tiger Woods and 2008 winner Vijay Singh. For everyone else, it's still a work in progress.

The fact that the PGA Tour went with a delivery company to fund its ambitious attempt at orchestrating a season-ending crescendo should not imply that it expected overnight delivery of results.

Indeed, a simple cliche reliably has been deployed by more than one to explain the lackluster performance of the FedEx Cup to date: A work in progress. We'll add a second: trial and error.

The emphasis is on error for a reason. Tiger Woods won the initial FedEx Cup in 2007 and as it turned out could have done so even by skipping the Tour Championship. Vijay Singh clinched the second FedEx Cup before the Tour Championship began, despite refinements to its scoring formula designed to avoid such a scenario. Each time, the PGA Tour had scripted a climax and its actors gave them an anticlimax.

So here we are now -- on the eve of another playoff season, commencing with The Barclays on Thursday, another makeover in place -- pondering whether the PGA Tour finally will have gotten it right.

"I have no idea," Lucas Glover said last week at the Wyndham Championship. "I don't know how it works. I looked at it for the first time the other day to see where I stood."

We'll safely assume that he was not reciting the company line. What does it say, then, about an endeavor worth $35 million to the players, $10 million to the winner, and the response is apathy?

The FedEx Cup still has obstacles, obviously, widespread indifference among them, even as the networks dutifully update us on FedEx Cup points each week. FedEx Cup points. How does that work again? Another obstacle: the calculus on which the tour relies to produce a champion. Who can understand it without an MIT degree, or at least a slide rule? "It's just a little difficult to follow," Glover said.

Four bullet points are offered in the section on the FedEx Cup, beneath the heading, "2009 Changes," in the PGA Tour Guide. The last of them is this: "Streamlining the points structure for ease of understanding."

Really? Here's the first bullet point: "Shifting the points reset from the beginning of the Playoffs to after the BMW Championship, which means points earned during the PGA Tour Regular Season will be carried through the first three Playoff events."

"They need to make it easier for the fans to follow," Ben Curtis said. The players could use some help, too, he might have added.

At least there's this: The tour says the changes to the points system "guarantees that the 30 players who end up qualifying for the Tour Championship each has a mathematical chance of winning the FedEx Cup." A victory in the Tour Championship by any of the top five apparently will deliver them a FedEx Cup win, too.

Curtis wonders whether the system would be better served by scrapping points and replacing them with dollars, the latter speaking a language that does not require a translation.

"That's what I like about the European Tour (the Race to Dubai)," he said. "It's strictly off the money list. Our tour has always been about the money list. Personally, that's how I'd do it. And if someone gets $6 million ahead going into the playoffs, then maybe you need a point system starting with the playoffs. There are different ways to look at it. Over time, they're going to get closer and closer. It's like NASCAR (and the Chase). Look at how often they've changed it? And they're still changing it."

The general consensus seems to indicate that the tour has gotten close enough with its formula, however puzzling, that it will deliver the desired result, its own weekend chase at the Tour Championship.

"I think we're in for the most exciting year," Steve Stricker said, "just because we're going to have more players involved in that last tournament. It should provide a lot more excitement for the players and fans alike.

"There wasn't enough movement the first year and way too much movement last year. It kind of took away the whole season. They wanted more people involved and not have happen what happened last year, where Vijay didn't have to play the Tour Championship."

More than that, as Nick Watney reminded, the volatility produced by the scoring system precluded Padraig Harrington, winner of two major championships and the frontrunner for PGA Tour Player of the Year, from qualifying for the Tour Championship last year. "Hopefully this year they've gotten it right," Watney said. "The idea is great."

The idea has always been to inject interest into the end of the PGA Tour season, when sports fans have largely turned their attention to football season and baseball pennant races.

"We compete against football in September and October," Brandt Snedeker said. "It's going to be tough to draw fans. But having Tiger Woods playing in the Tour Championship against Phil (Mickelson) and Ernie (Els), all those guys, and nobody knows who is going to win yet, it'll be great. It'll be good for golf."

Tiger Woods, of course, is fundamentally the most important ingredient to the success of anything involving men's professional golf these days. The fact that he has entered the Barclays bodes well for the FedEx Cup, signaling as it does the likelihood of his competing in all four playoff events. The second of them, the Deutsche Bank Championship, benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation, virtually assuring he plays there. The third, the BMW Championship, is at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club, where Woods has won four times (three in the Western Open, once in the BMW Championship), a strong inducement to return. The fourth is the Tour Championship, in which he is certain to play.

At that, Woods in contention might still be challenged to siphon more than a modicum of the football audience. His competition on that Sunday is a series of intriguing NFL games: New England vs. Atlanta, the New York Giants vs. Tampa Bay, the New York Jets vs. Tennessee and Indianapolis vs. Arizona.

Playoff golf, at any rate, is a tough sell in any market, much less a crowded one.

"It's hard to have playoffs in golf," Glover said, citing one obstacle that isn't likely to submit to any matter of mathematical manipulation.