Crunching the Numbers

'What if' the PGA Tour's staggered-stroke format to determine the FedEx Cup champ had been in place all along?

August 21, 2022

Keyur Khamar/PGA Tour

It’s been five years since the PGA Tour changed the format of the FedEx Cup Playoffs so that the winner of the Tour Championship was also guaranteed to be the FedEx Cup champion. In that time, the debate surrounding the staggered, stroke-adjusted start for the 30 players who advance to East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta has remained, well, let's just say lively.

A quick refresher: Since 2019, the No. 1 player on the FedEx Cup points list entering the Tour Championship will start the first round already at 10 under on the leaderboard. The No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 players will be at eight under, seven under, six under and five under. Nos. 6-10 will start at four under, 11-16 at three under … all the way down to those at 26-30 starting at even par.

Here's how it looks this week with the 2023 field in place:

Giving some players a head start as a reward for their play entering the playoff finale, however, isn’t something everybody is on board with.

“I have made my position clear on that in the past,” said Jon Rahm a year ago. “I don't think it's the best system. You don't get to the Super Bowl and the team with the better record starts with a two-touchdown advantage. I think it's absolutely ludicrous, but it's the best choice we have right now.”

There is, of course, a logical reason why the change was made. In 2017 and 2018, the two years prior to the change, the winner at East Lake and the FedEx Cup champion were different players, creating confusion on Sunday afternoons as the Tour Championship was playing out.

“The beauty here is in the simplicity,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan when originally announcing the new system. “Fans are very familiar with golf leader boards in relation to par, so they will have a clear understanding of the impact every shot makes during the final run for the FedEx Cup, ultimately leading to a singular champion without conflicting storylines.”

When the change went into place in 2019, we posed a logical question: What if the new system had been in place since the FedEx Cup’s inception in 2007? How might history be different?

As our research showed then—and we show again by re-running this post—it turns out things actually wouldn't have been that much different. And that’s the way the tour officials wanted it, having run thousands of computer simulations to try and approximate as best they could the point differential in play under the old system.

We reviewed the first 12 years of the playoffs, took the top 30 in the FedEx Cup list entering East Lake and applied the adjusted strokes to the players scores at the Tour Championship to determine who would have won if the new format was used retroactively.

Nine times the actual FedEx Cup winner also would have won in the new strokes-based system, and a 10th time the winner (Jim Furyk in 2010) would have been in a sudden-death playoff for the title.

So which seasons would have had different outcomes? In 2008, the year Vijay Singh had wrapped up the FedEx Cup title before even playing the Tour Championship, Camilo Villegas would have knocked off Singh as the FedEx Cup champ.

Here’s how it would have played out: Villegas was second on the points list entering the finale, so he would have started the tournament at eight under. He then shot seven under over four days at East Lake, beating Sergio Garcia in a playoff. Villegas’ adjusted score would have been 15 under. Singh, meanwhile, tied for 22nd in the tournament, finishing at nine over par (remember all he had to do was play four rounds that year and he was guaranteed to be the FedEx Cup champ, so his incentive to grind in the event was minimal). Adding his 10 under start only gets him to one under, and Singh would have finished tied for 10th overall in the FedEx Cup race. (After 2008, the tour implemented a points reset entering the Tour Championship to prevent any golfer from clinching the Cup before the last event.)


The other year where things would have differed is 2011, as Luke Donald would have raised the FedEx Cup instead of Bill Haas. That year, Donald finished one shot out of a playoff between Haas and Hunter Mahan for the Tour Championship title, finishing at seven under. He was fourth on the points list entering East Lake, so his six-under bonus would have jumped him to 13 under. Haas, who beat Mahan in a playoff, shot eight under for the tournament but was only getting one stroke since he started the week 25th in FedEx Cup points. That would leave Haas at nine under total, putting him in a tie for fourth (with Mahan) when applying the new format.


As it turns out, that might have actually been Donald’s second straight FedEx Cup title. In 2010, Donald finished the Tour Championship one stroke back of Jim Furyk at seven under. But Donald started the week at four under having been seventh in FedEx Cup points. Furyk shot eight under, but his 11th place spot on the points list only got him a bonus of three strokes. So the two would have tied at 11 under total and needed a sudden-death playoff to determine the ultimate winner.


Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Long story short, in our alternative history, Luke Donald would have been a FedEx Cup legend.