John Feinstein

Here's how you make sure the FedEx Cup Playoffs are a true playoff

September 01, 2020
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Stan Badz

Let’s give the PGA Tour credit: Ever since then-commissioner Tim Finchem convinced FedEx to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to help him launch a playoff system, it has been trying to get that system right.

Finchem’s idea was to find a way to keep the stars on his tour playing in real events—as opposed to November-December Silly Season exhibitions—after the majors were over. Once the PGA Championship was wrapped up in mid-August, most top players either went home to spend time with their families, went overseas to play for appearance money or played an event or two—usually Disney, to take a paid family vacation. The Tour Championship was played around Halloween, and even with a huge purse, top players sometimes skipped it.

Which is why Finchem came up with the idea for a four-tournament playoff earlier in the fall, and more important, convinced FedEx to finance it in a way that would get the players’ attention. The argument can be made that it was the most important thing he did as commissioner.

The playoffs have worked. The best players almost always play—money talks, even for multimillionaires—and the tour can now claim to have a legitimate climax.

Almost.

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Very few things are perfect from the start, and the tour has recognized that with constant tweaks to the system. After Year One, officials adjusted the points system to make it more difficult for players to skip an event before the Tour Championship. When Phil Mickelson loudly complained that the $10 million first prize was an annuity—combine that with California’s tax increase several years ago, and one wonders how Phil paid his mortgage—the tour got FedEx to pay the winner in cash.

Then, when Vijay Singh clinched the title in 2008 before the Tour Championship was played, the system was changed again. It’s difficult to claim that an event is climactic if you know who the winner is before a ball is hit. More changes came in 2011, when the points system was altered so all 30 players had at least some chance to win when everyone arrived in Atlanta.

That worked, too—Bill Haas came from 25th place that year to win the tournament and the FedEx Cup. The only problem was that the system was so complicated Haas didn’t know that he’d won. He walked onto the victory platform and, on national television, said to Finchem, “Who won the FedEx Cup?” The commissioner somehow kept his cool and said, “You did.”

OK, you just can’t have a system where a guy wins $10 million (now $15 million) and doesn’t even know he won. It also doesn’t make much sense to have two winners on the final day—which happened four times in the playoffs’ first 12 years. And, with all due respect to my friend Steve Sands, it makes no sense for the most important person at East Lake the last day of the season to be a TV announcer who spends the afternoon in front of a whiteboard doing golf calculus while everyone watching sits there and says, “Huh?”

There was also the embarrassing specter of each winner of the pre-Atlanta playoff events receiving 2,000 FedEx Cup points while the winners of the major championships received 600 FedEx Cup points.

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Stan Badz/PGA Tour

Kudos to the PGA Tour for preventing multiple winners on the final day of the PGA Tour season, like Justin Rose (FedEx Cup) and Tiger Woods (Tour Championship) in 2018. But there's one more tweak needed.

All this led to the current system, adopted a year ago, in which the points leader after the second of the now-three playoff events starts the first round of the Tour Championship with a score of 10 under par. The player second on the points list is at eight under, and it drops in levels to even par for the last few in the 30-player field. Is it just me, or does this sound a little bit like something you might conjure up for your member-guest next summer?

Billy Horschel, a past FedEx Cup champion, who sits in the 30th spot on the points list, might beat Dustin Johnson (who was first) by nine shots this week and would still finish one shot behind him in the tournament and for the championship. Seriously?

As everyone knows, I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to help the PGA Tour in any way I possibly can. So, I present to you the fairly simple solution to all this, a system that is fair, that should keep the sponsors happy and will make for—just as important—good TV.

Let’s begin with this: Make the playoffs real playoffs. There is no major sport where regular-season results carry over to the postseason. Yes, there’s home-field/home-court/home-ice advantage, but that guarantees nothing. Sure, seedings matter, but they aren’t all-important. Twice in recent years, hockey’s Stanley Cup champion was the No. 8 seed in its conference. The Super Bowl is played at a neutral site. Twice since 2008, a 9-7 New York Giants team beat a powerhouse New England Patriots team—including in 2008, when the Patriots were 16-0 in the regular season.

That doesn’t happen if the Patriots are spotted a 7-0 or a 10-0 lead in the Super Bowl. You don’t start a best-of-seven playoff series with one team up 1-0 based on regular-season record.

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So, increase the payoff for regular-season performance, and then start everyone at zero for the three-tournament playoff series. You can use the current formula going from 125 players to 70 to 30 in each successive event, or you can give more players the chance to play the first week, say 150 (it was 144 the first year of playoffs) and then drop to 100 and, finally, send 64 players to Atlanta. This gives the TV guys the chance to warble about guys on the bubble both weeks, and it makes it less likely that stars will be cut before the final weekend.

The tour has been almost obsessed with trying to get Tiger Woods—and to a lesser degree, Mickelson—to Atlanta. Ironically, Woods hasn’t gotten there eight of the past 10 years, in part because of injuries, in part because he hasn’t played well enough. If the Atlanta field was 64 this year, Woods would have sneaked in.

Woods will be 45 next year and Mickelson 51, so the number of times they’re going to make it to Atlanta is going to be limited in the future—at best. The guys TV really wants nowadays are whomever is playing the best. No one—not even Rory McIlroy—is considered must-see TV by the networks the way Woods and Mickelson have been. Brooks Koepka, a four-time major champion, spent this year injured and was a non-factor when the playoffs rolled around before withdrawing before the first event. I’m a huge Koepka fan. My guess is, his absence hasn’t affected TV ratings at all.

The guys playing the best will be there, regardless.

But that’s not why I’m suggesting 64. The most dramatic moments in golf often come in the Ryder Cup—which is match play. To me, the WGC-Match Play event is vastly undersold by the tour, although a good deal of the drama was sucked out of it when the format was changed from straight knockout to pod play. Again, TV wanted to ensure the big names would be around for at least three days. Prior to that you had to watch every day or miss something dramatic.

The TV networks aren’t wild about match play. They worry about the stars being knocked out early. Here’s my proposal: Play 36 holes of stroke play and let the top 16 advance to match-play bracket. If there are ties for the final spot or spots, play off. That creates real drama early in the week. Then, have four matches on Sunday afternoon: the two finalists for the title, the two losing semifinalists playing for third place, and the four quarterfinalists playing for fifth and seventh. Make the money difference from third down at least $1 million. Plenty of drama there. Championship match goes off last so, barring a rout, it’s the last one to finish.

If you can’t convince the networks to go for match play, then you go back to stroke play and pick the number you feel best about sending to Atlanta. But everyone starts at zero when you get there. The first two tournaments are strictly about qualifying. No one starts with a lead, Sands can retire his white board for good and there’s just one winner. Maybe you changed the recitation at the start of each telecast during the year from “the season-long race for the FedEx Cup” to “the annual race for the FedEx Cup.” Few people can tell one golf season from another these days anyway.

There you go. All sorts of drama, giving the big names every possible chance to get to Atlanta, and no format where one guy can beat another by nine shots (or seven, or six or five) and still not win the tournament or the championship.

Commissioner Monahan, you can thank me later.