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Overview of Tour Championship
Four weeks ago, prior to the Barclays (which needs to be followed by the word 'Championship' if only because all the other playoff events have it), there was nothing much wrong with the FedEx Cup. It was a struggle remembering something negative anyone had said or written about it all year.
The points system for this year's competition had remained the same as last year's, and the resetting of points following the third playoff event had prevented the scenario in which a runaway leader had only to complete 72 holes at the Tour Championship in order to win the trophy and $10million - such as what happened in 2008 when Vijay Singh won the first two playoff events and more or less wrapped up the season-long points race. Indeed, the final event of the 2009 FedEx Cup gave us a level of drama that even the most ruthless critics might have enjoyed, albeit reluctantly.
And, at the end of it, FedEx Cup winner Tiger Woods and Tour Championship victor Phil Mickelson stood in front of an army of photographers and TV cameras, baring teeth and trophies for all the world to see. It couldn't really get much better than that for spectators or sponsors and, as a result, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, whose notion of a big end-of-season (but pre-football season) showdown involving the world's best players seemed, at last, to have been realized.
When Matt Kuchar beat Martin Laird in a playoff to win the Barclays at the end of August, however, the naysayers' murmurs jumped a decibel or 10. Kuchar wasn't the problem. He had played well all season and deserved his place at the top of the points list. That Laird rose from 95th in the standings to third after losing in a playoff at a single tournament didn't sit well, however. Kevin Streelman's leap from 102nd into the top 20 for finishing third wasn't fully supported either.
What happened at Ridgewood GC was just the beginning though. The following week in Boston, Charley Hoffman shot a final-round 62 to win the Deutsche Bank Championship. He climbed 57 places into second and assured himself a place in the field for this week's Tour Championship. A tie for 30th at the BMW Championship two weeks ago saw him drop a place but hang on to one of the all-important top-five spots, meaning the silver and loot would definitely be his were he to win in Atlanta.
And with that, all hell broke loose. What sort of idiotic, hastily-assembled, rag-tag system could allow someone who hadn't played in a single major championship in 2010 to be so high in the standings with a great shot at being crowned FedEx champion? Moreover, how could this system award 2,500 points to a man whose putter (and sand wedge - remember the holed bunker shot at the 13th?) had gotten very hot one late-summer Sunday in Massachusetts, when the hypothetical golfer who won all four major championships earned a total of 2,400?
Then there was Streelman, the other obvious but unfortunate poster child for everything that is apparently wrong with the FedEx Cup. By FedEx's reckoning, the 31-year-old from Illinois has been one of the top-30 players this season and therefore plays in Atlanta, despite coming into the tournament 67th on the PGA Tour money list.
Those are fairly damning statistics - the one about Hoffman winning more points in Boston than the fantasy Grand Slam winner the most objectionable of them all. Seems you can always rely on some unknown journeyman to have the week of their golfing life and thus make asses of the geniuses that calculated the system, especially when your best player is having a nightmare and doesn't even make it to the finale.
And speaking of Tiger Woods, should he, as defending champion, have been given a backdoor pass into the field in order to save the ratings, as one prominent publication suggested? The idea makes sense, of course; you don't want the non-golfing world wondering why the one golfer it has heard of isn't even in the starting lineup. But what credibility the FedEx Cup had gained since 2007 would probably have been wiped out in an instant if Finchem and friends were seen fumbling around desperately for reasons to involve their No. 1 box office attraction.
All this makes more end-of-season amendments to the points system likely, and after the changes are published, half the world (well, half of those who still care) will bemoan its lack of potential volatility while the other half screams too much!
Gary Van Sickle's suggestion on Golf.com for keeping each player's cumulative total in relation to par throughout the playoffs seems the most sensible solution. My only query is how you might reset the scores at the end of the regular season (assuming one of the main objectives of the FedEx Cup is to identify the best players of the year, the man who won two majors and four other tournaments before the playoffs began should ideally tee it up at the Barclays with a significant lead over the man who had recorded three top-10s but no wins).
With a system like Van Sickle's, you potentially get the top two players in the world coming to the 18th green at East Lake tied for the FedEx lead at 48-under-par and lining up birdie putts knowing that if they make and the other misses they win the FedEx Cup - not NBC's Dan Hicks announcing about five minutes after (player) makes a bogey on the 70th hole that "with that bogey he drops into third place," like what happened 12 months ago. It's a workable plan that should at least be given a chance. One wonders if it might never be adopted, however, simply because it wasn't the PGA Tour's idea.
Finchem said Tuesday that debating the details of the FedEx Cup is healthy, which is true certainly, but only if the reasoning leads to a satisfying conclusion; one that all parties can live with. He has got the part about establishing four exciting end-of-year tournaments featuring the world's top players indubitably right. That has happened. What golf fans are still looking for though is being able to watch the final nine holes at East Lake knowing exactly what needs to happen for their favorite player to win.
Five players start this week knowing that if they win the Tour Championship, they win the FedEx Cup. The remaining 25 not only have to win the tournament but rely on help from others. Matt Kuchar leads the contest with 2,500 points (reset after the BMW). Dustin Johnson is next with 2,250. Then come Hoffman (2,000), Steve Stricker (1,800) and Paul Casey (1,600).
The favorite is probably Stricker, who has finished in the top 10 in each of the playoff events thus far and was sixth here last year. Casey, making his debut at East Lake, would love to win the FedEx Cup and wave it in Europe's Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie's face (for not selecting Casey to the 2010 team), while Kuchar and Hoffman have never played at the course Bobby Jones once called home. Of the two, Kuchar is by far the more consistent and more likely to do well. Johnson played here last year but could do no better than 27th. One suspects, however, that if he finds any sort of groove, he will simply overpower what is one of the easier courses on the PGA Tour.
Outside the top five, 10th-place Mickelson is surely the most likely to succeed, his rather erratic second half of the season notwithstanding. The world No. 2 shot a closing 65 to beat Woods by three last year, and he also won here in 2000 when he got the better of Woods, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Nick Price with a final-round 66. Mickelson will be making his 12th attempt this year to surpass Woods at the top of the world rankings - an outcome that, statistically, is slightly more probable than his winning the FedEx Cup - so he will not come without motivation. Jim Furyk, 11th in the FedEx rankings, has four top-10s here in seven starts, and 19th-placed Zach Johnson has good memories of the place, having shot a third-round 60 in 2007.
Even without Woods - presumably at home in Florida preparing with instructor Sean Foley for next week's Ryder Cup, the 2010 Tour Championship promises to be a very exciting spectacle. Just as long as we have some idea who needs to do what and when to win.
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 increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf 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.