Let’s ask the unanswerable question: How do you invent a postseason in golf that actually matters?
The easiest part of the exercise is naming the obstacles. For one thing, the four majors have been established for decades as the biggest tournaments in the sport, and that’s not changing anytime soon. Their rule is ironclad, and anyone attempting to conceive of a successful playoff system should realize that the battle for relevance will be long, arduous and, very possibly, a failure.
Which doesn’t mean that the PGA Tour should concede to the forces of history and give up. The early dream that the Players Championship might become a major has long since faded, and playoffs are the Tour’s last chance to aspire to something of that magnitude. And who wouldn’t want an entertaining postseason? Imagine, for a hypothetical moment, that a playoff system took root among the fans and generated real enthusiasm. Golf would have a legitimate season-ending championship, and it would carry a huge amount of prestige.
The second problem -- and the one with an actual, achievable solution -- is that playoffs in American sports are predicated on drama, and that drama is predicated on a tried-and-true format: A single game or a single series between two opponents. The fact is, you need that simplicity, one-on-one, or the whole thing just becomes convoluted and dull.
It’s not that regular seasons don’t matter elsewhere. In baseball, basketball, and football, each team’s regular season performance comes with benefits that carry over to the playoffs—a higher seed, home-field advantage, maybe even a bye through the early rounds. But once these advantages have been established, the game must be played, and the results are wonderfully unpredictable.
In the 2008 Super Bowl, the New England Patriots came in as an undefeated juggernaut with a chance to make history by finishing 19-0. They faced the New York Giants, a team that went 10-6 in the regular season and survived each round of the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. As it happened, the Giants won, and although nobody would ever argue that they were the better team throughout the season, everybody recognized them as champions. NFL fans and pundits and governing bodies respected the final result.
Golf fans and pundits and governing bodies do not respect head-to-head match-ups, and it’s an enormous problem. Nobody seems to mind a small sample size at the majors, but when it comes to playoffs, the mere suggestion of an entire season boiling down to a final tournament sets an entire faction of the establishment up in arms.
The championship, the thinking goes, should reward the best player for an entire year, not just the tail end. It makes no difference to these sticks-in-the-mud that every other American sport emphasizes the conclusion of a season—conservatism abounds in golf, and it’s this brand of backward thinking that continues to stymie the PGA Tour.
The current format is highly dubious. The FedExCup playoffs are a series of four events—the Barclays, the Deutsche Bank, the BMW Championship, and the Tour Championship—where the “points” a player can earn are jacked up far beyond the regular season. It’s a compromise, of sorts—each player carries his regular season points over, which theoretically rewards good play from October through August—but the playoff events matter more. In 2014, each player earned 2,500 points for a FedEx Cup playoff win, compared to an average of 500 points for a regular season win. That disparity is designed to lend the playoffs a sense of drama, but it only succeeds at introducing chaotic volatility.
Let’s take 2014. Billy Horschel won the big prize, which is about as arbitrary as you can get, considering the guy had exactly zero top-5 finishes prior to the playoffs. His late surge proved that the attempt to balance the regular season with the playoffs is a bad joke, because the guy who had a mediocre year still caught fire and stole the championship…just like any other playoff system! The only difference is the lack of excitement; the Tour forces its fans to follow a complex mathematical formula and a byzantine list of potential outcomes, which is analogous to hearing a dull lecture on the joys of human reproduction rather than experiencing the thing itself.
To be fair, the PGA Tour does a better job than the European Tour, whose “Race to Dubai Final Series” isn’t very much like a playoff at all—in 2014, Rory McIlroy clinched the whole thing before the last event, and he didn’t even show up to the first three. That victory was made possible when the European Tour caved to pressure from the players a year earlier and reversed a rule mandating that the champion had to play in at least two of the events in order to qualify for the title—a capitulation that essentially undermined the entire format, and turned the so-called “Final Series” into nothing more than a jumped-up MVP award. Then again, it’s no surprise, because Europeans don’t value playoffs the same way that Americans do—the top honor in their domestic soccer leagues, for instance, is still a regular season title.
The PGA Tour, too, deferred to the critics when they made the choice to reduce the winning points from 2,500 to 2,000 last December, ahead of the 2015 season. This puts more emphasis back on the regular season, and lowers the status of the playoffs. You’d be justified in calling this a huge step backward, if everything wasn’t already screwed up beyond belief. Through the minor tweaks and adjustments, the PGA Tour manages to miss the greater point—the winner of the playoffs will always be the golfer who gets hot late, and the crucial element of drama is still missing.
In place of logic or fun, the Tour throws money at the problem, awarding the gaudy sum of $10 million to the winner. Unfortunately, money alone can’t buy prestige, and when players like Bill Haas or Brandt Snedeker back in to a title by winning the Tour Championship and not much else, it’s not exactly compelling. The truth is, these are not real playoffs—they are regular season events on steroids, wearing a flimsy playoff mask.
The only solution—and maybe you’ve already guessed it—is match play. It doesn’t take a genius to see that golf's most controversial format is tailor-made to generate the head-to-head postseason tension we love in team sports. The excitement is practically built in to the format, and it would create a true playoff system capable of determining a true champion.
And it would be dead easy: Let the players duke it out in stroke play over the first three events of the FedEx Cup, reduced the field from 30 to 16 after the first two days of the Tour Championship, and then institute a single elimination match play bracket to be played out on Saturday and Sunday. Voila—a compelling final, complete with the guarantee of excellent draws (which is the missing element everybody kvetches about during the Match Play Championship).
By trying to placate both sides, though, the Tour has walked down the middle path and created something that feels mildly interesting at best, and tepid at worst. The fact that they’ve now retreated even from a watered-down version demonstrates the inherent weakness of the format.
If a match play system were implemented, the players would probably stage a mutiny, because there are very few groups of human beings on the planet are more entitled and short-sighted than professional golfers. They consider match play unfair and arbitrary—and they have a point. But the reality is that playoffs are unfair and arbitrary, which is part of what makes them so entertaining. And, as we've seen, the current format has only managed to rid itself of the "entertainment" half of that equation, while failing to eradicate the so-called injustice.
Imagine, if you can, the aftermath of the Patriots-Giants Super Bowl. Imagine all the Patriots players stood in front of the cameras and complained. Imagine they said that a single game was no kind of way to determine a champion, because anything could happen in the span of 60 minutes, and sometimes the best team would lose. Imagine they argued that the only reasonable way to determine a champion was to look at the results of an entire season, and evaluate the strengths and merits of a team from that broad perspective. Imagine they insisted that if the two teams played ten games, the Patriots would seven or eight, and that any unbiased observer would have to agree.
They’d be right. But they’d also be whiners, and if anybody listened to them, we wouldn’t have a Super Bowl.