The new PGA Tour season is just a couple of weeks old, so maybe it’s a little bit early to be thinking about the FedEx Cup playoffs. But, with the CIMB Classic in Malaysia this week, there’s a lot of daylight hours on the East Coast of the U.S. to think about these kinds of things.
The FedEx Cup concept is now in its eighth season, and it’s still in need of tweaking. (President Obama, if you can clean up HealthCare.gov in less time, then you at least beat the PGA Tour.)
Critics — including me — have suggested a host of FedEx Cup fixes. In a recent piece here at Golf News Net, some of the ideas included reducing the number of playoff events as well the number of players who qualify. The most important aspect of the playoffs, however, isn’t who qualifies or how they get to the finale, but it’s the Tour Championship itself that best measures the quality of the concept.
With $10 million on the line, it should be foolproof — for players and fans — to understand how to win the FedEx Cup. As the Tour Championship and the playoffs are constructed now, that’s only the case for one-sixth of the 30-player field. Sorry, that’s not good enough.
So the suggestions to make winning the FedEx Cup crystal clear have been pretty simple: make the Tour Championship a winner-take-all event to determine the FedEx Cup or introduce some form of match play into the Tour Championship to create a dramatic conclusion to the $10 million, four-tournament jaunt.
Each suggestion has flaws, as far as the PGA Tour can see it. Making the Tour Championship effectively into the FedEx Cup Championship risks punishing players who had a great regular season or even a remarkable playoff run. (Then again, Tiger Woods didn’t win the FedEx Cup and, by far, had the best regular season.) If a top player blows up in a single round, that might hurt the audience for the Tour Championship. Using the points system to weight top players into a chance to win the FedEx Cup, almost regardless of the East Lake outcome, prevents any player from truly being out of it.
Converting the Tour Championship into a match-play event or one which offers a match-stroke-play hybrid risks the same problem. If Tiger Woods is bounced in the first round of match play in the Tour Championship, then there’s no chance of a maximum audience for the FedEx Cup finish.
Here’s a new compromise: the FedEx Cup gauntlet.
Under this idea, the Tour Championship disappears, creating the FedEx Cup Championship. However, it’s not just one tournament. The first part of the tournament creates a qualifying event from players ranked sixth-30th in the FedEx Cup standings through three events. Those players compete in a 36-hole, stroke-play shootout, with the top two players earning a spot into the opening level of the FedEx Cup gauntlet.
The top two from the qualifying shootout then face each other in an 18-hole match for the right to play the fifth-ranked player in an 18-hole match. The winner then advances to take on the fourth-ranked player and so on, until the finale pits the gauntlet survivor against the top-ranked player through the first three FedEx Cup events. It creates one 18-hole match for $10 million.
Using this concept, Tiger Woods would be guaranteed to last until the end. The flaw? He wouldn’t show up until the end, not needing to play at all to get to the final match. Golf’s biggest audiences are on Saturday and Sunday anyhow, so there’s little to be lost by letting Woods and other top players sit out if they’re already in the gauntlet.
Of course, Tiger Woods isn’t going to be the top seed every year. He might be the fifth seed, meaning that fans would get to see him sooner.
Regardless of who gets to the gauntlet, the storylines are obvious. Can the top seeds win? Will a season of work be undone by a hot hand? Can the players who found their way into the gauntlet make it all the way to the $10 million?
The FedEx Cup gauntlet would accommodate all of the things the PGA Tour would like to accomplish. There’s volatility, both in the shootout and the gauntlet. The top players will be guaranteed to contend. It’s an actual playoff, with consequences for performing poorly. And the winner-take-all nature of the final match will draw eyeballs to the game.