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Math 101: The Tour Championship & FedEx Cup

By: Tony Dear


A Monday editorial on pgatour.com suggested readers would be able to follow this week's events in the Tour Championship at East Lake without any of the previous years' confusion, because "you know the deal by now."

While that is certainly truer now than it was at the same stage last year, it's a fair bet many of those tuning in to watch coverage of the event this weekend probably won't know the deal and will need to be told a dozen times by Johnny Miller and Co. that any of the five players who began the week at the top of the standings will win the FedEx Cup and the $10 million check if they win the tournament, and that players ranked 6-30 at the start of the week can still win the Cup but only if they win the Tour Championship and those above them don't do so well.

How's this for a scenario: Bo Van Pelt, the man who snuck into 30th place and grabbed the final spot in the field for the second year in a row, will win the FedEx Cup if he wins at East Lake; Webb Simpson - the man currently at the top of the standings - finishes 29th or 30th; No. 2 Dustin Johnson finishes seventh or worse; No. 3 Justin Rose finishes fifth or worse; No. 4 Luke Donald finishes fourth or worse; and Nos. 5 and 6 - Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker - finish third or worse.

Yep, a few more people may know the deal better than they did 12 months ago, but the FedEx Cup and the final event of the Playoffs do not come without the potential for some frighteningly complex scenarios.

A popular and increasingly vocal opinion argues that the Playoffs should be modeled on post-season formats favored by other sports that pit one team against another: the winner advancing, the loser left to rue a seemingly great but ultimately disappointing season.

One against one at match play, or even medal match play, would create infinitely more tension and a more dramatic climax to the year. But as those will attest who witnessed the not very highly anticipated final of the 1999 WGC Accenture Matchplay Championship between Jeff Maggert and Andrew Magee, or the 2002 finale between Kevin Sutherland and Scott McCarron, the cream does not always rise to the top in match play and the season's best player - or even the week's best player - isn't necessarily identified.

Mind you, what happened at East Lake last year indicates that stroke play might not always be ideal for exposing the game's hottest players either. Jim Furyk may have won twice in 2010 before arriving in Atlanta. But because of some fairly indifferent form throughout the summer and at the start of the playoffs - T37 in Boston, T15 in Chicago and he missed The Barclays after turning up late for the pro-am and being DQ'ed - Furyk was down in 11th place in the standings before the tournament started. But Kuchar, the man who started the week No. 1, shot 5-over 285 and finished the Tour Championship tied for 25th.

And the players in second, third, fourth and fifth also did exactly what they needed to do in order for Furyk to leapfrog the lot of them and claim the huge bonus.

If scoring systems were perfect and guaranteed that the most deserving players were the last players standing, then this week would see a famous battle between Webb Simpson - the best player of the past few weeks - and Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world and undoubtedly the game's most consistent performer throughout 2011.

The 26-year-old Simpson has recorded four top-10s and two wins in his last four starts and six top-10s in his last seven, amassing over $3.3 million in the last two and a half months alone. Donald, meanwhile, has won three times worldwide this year (once on the PGA Tour, twice in Europe) and has been the world's top-ranked player since late May.

Simpson is making his first appearance in the Tour Championship and has never seen East Lake, where Bobby Jones learned to play the game. Donald, on the other hand, has played there the last two years and finished second to Furyk in 2010. The putting surfaces on all 18 greens of the 1904 Tom Bendelow design (since redesigned by Donald Ross, George Cobb and twice by Rees Jones) have changed since 2010, with P-18 ultradwarf Bermuda replacing the bentgrass. Yet the Englishman should make his familiarity with the layout count.

Donald has a T3 and a fourth-place finish in the last two Playoff tournaments, while Simpson finished first and fifth. By rights, the pair will comprise Sunday afternoon's final twosome and will slug it out all the way to the 18th green, where one will be crowned FedEx Cup champion and, most likely, PGA Tour Player of the Year, while the other . . . isn't.

Of course, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose, the players separating Simpson and Donald in the standings, will have a say in the final outcome. For Johnson, 2011 hadn't quite been the year he must have hoped for following an impressive 2010 in which he won twice and contended strongly at two majors. But then it all came right at The Barclays three weeks ago when he won in 54 holes, rising from 19th on the FedEx list to first.

Meanwhile, Rose jumped from 34th to his current position after claiming his third PGA Tour victory in Chicago (ironically Donald's adopted hometown) last weekend and taking full advantage of the excess of points available to high finishers at the playoff events; the winner of each playoff earns more points than a player would in winning the Grand Slam, which seems irreconcilable if the idea of the FedEx Cup is to recognize the season's most successful players.

That surplus of points available during the Playoffs does, of course, give players scraping into the post-season and subsequently overachieving at one of the playoffs a more than reasonable chance of winning the FedEx Cup - one they would not have seen coming at the start of September. Last year, Charlie Hoffman won the Deutsche Bank Championship and rose 57 spots in the FedEx standings to second. "I wasn't really in the race before this week," he said afterwards. "I guess that's why this format is pretty unique. You can come out of nowhere."

Can you ever. Two weeks ago Chez Reavie became 2011's main beneficiary by almost going Hoffmanesque at the same Deutsche Bank Championship, climbing 78 places following a defeat in extra holes to Simpson (John Senden also gave himself a chance of glory by coming in second last week and climbing from 55th to 9th). Having begun the season on a medical extension, and after finishing the regular season 76th in the standings, 29-year-old Reavie earned 1,500 points for his runner-up finish and jumped from 87th to ninth, becoming the first player in Playoffs history to move from outside the top 70 into the top 10.

To spring the ultimate surprise and spark almost hysterical back page/golf blog scrutiny of the already suspect format by winning the FedEx Cup, Reavie would need to record his second PGA Tour victory and watch as Simpson and Johnson finish third or worse.

No, it's not a good bet, but who knows? Jim Furyk teed off in last year's first round three places lower in the standings than Reavie is now.

Unless one of the top five emerges atop the East Lake leaderboard with a few holes to go and more or less guarantees succeeding Furyk as FedEx Cup champion, Sunday afternoon will likely be spent making frantic calculations.

One hopes it doesn't get too complicated.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.