January 9, 2008

Opinion: FedEx Cup

Are top players in tune with FedEx Cup moves?

A couple of months ago PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem unveiled slight revisions to the 2008 FedEx Cup playoff system, the highlight of which will be a week without any event during an otherwise cramped September. The so-called "tweaking" was generally hailed as judicious, and we quickly turned our attention to other matters, such as a plummeting stock market, whether we could afford Christmas presents after a trip to the gas station and Hannah Montana concert fever.

But here it is the start of another campaign, and we have yet to detect much feedback from two of the most important components of golf's new era. If Tiger Woods said the altered schedule tastes great, and Phil Mickelson said it's less filling, I missed it. We blithely assumed Finchem ran the idea past his mega-stars before making it policy because their blessing is vital. The problem is, we were led to believe Tiger and Phil were on board last year, at least until they logged imperfect attendance, each skipping one of the four-legged experiment.

I'm not here to imply that no news is bad news, nor would I forecast that we will be enlightened when Tiger and Phil reappear at the Buick Invitational near San Diego later this month. These icons base their careers on majors, and that prism simply doesn't include competing for a $10 million jackpot come autumn in what even the tour categorizes as a "second season." At their 2008 debut Tiger and Phil doubtless will be greeted by questions about plans, but they likely will tell us they have given less thought to September than they have to taking out a second mortgage, or the garbage. Imagine something like the following:

"The FedEx Cup?" Tiger will say. "That's what it was!! My caddie, Stevie Williams, and I were cleaning out his truck the other day, and we couldn't figure out where this one trophy came from. Atlanta last year? It was a little dusty and looked like it hadn't ever been kissed. Now I remember." Then Phil will be interrogated, and he's no fool. "There was some subcutaneous fat in the 2007 schedule, true, and it's nice to see there have been some changes. However, I honestly haven't really looked that far ahead, but I did stay at a Crowne Plaza last night."

A friend in my age bracket (arthritic) recently decried the lack of participation by current players and their alleged disinterest in the process. "Look at the old guys like Lee Trevino," he said. "He not only loved to tee it up every week, but at night he went back to his hotel and practiced putting on the carpet." A good point, but here's another: That was before in-room adult cable TV! And before the FedEx Cup, which had its conspicuous absences in Year One. "All of the Big Four missed one," noted Scott Verplank. "Tiger skipped New York, Phil didn't make Chicago, and before that in Boston, both Ernie Els and I weren't there."

Verplank was kidding, but feel free to assume that those no-shows did not go over well with the tour or sponsors. Woods, citing fatigue, did indeed send regrets to the Barclays. The next week Els stayed home in London to help his children prepare for school rather than partake of the Deutsche Bank Championship. Mickelson won there, then announced on national TV that he had some "issues," and he didn't mean issues of Golf World. He was upset with Finchem about something, and whatever it was, the left-hander did a flyover of the BMW Championship after attending a corporate outing one area code away. Padraig Harrington, the British Open victor, also avoided the Windy City and its substantial Irish population. (The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was blamed on Mrs. O'Leary's cow.)

The fourth playoff event, the Tour Championship, was staged the following week in Atlanta, where Finchem visited with several players, soliciting advice and exchanging theories. It was there that Finchem broached the possibility of mid-course corrections to the FedEx Cup lineup. Come November, he revealed that this year, the Barclays, Deutsche Bank and BMW would be held consecutively, but instead of the Tour Championship making for four straight again, there would be an off-week, then the Ryder Cup, then the delayed Tour Championship. It seemed simple enough to you and me, but we aren't Tiger or Phil.

If Woods and Mickelson are thrilled about the 2008 program -- or the fact that the tour acknowledged government pressure to pay $9 million up front instead of deferring entirely the winner's booty -- they certainly have contained their excitement. One rumor won't go away: The big doggies, including Els, who has worldwide commitments, would prefer three playoff tournaments instead of four. But long-range contracts are in place, so if Finchem can't drop one, golfers might. This could mean more angst for the Barclays, Deutsche Bank, BMW or the Tour Championship which, after the grind of a Ryder Cup, might seem anti-climactic. Or optional.