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Third Time's A Charm for FedEx Cup
The FedEx Cup was a big anti-climax last year and in 2007. So the points system was overhauled again. This time, it might just work.
The FedEx Cup came in for an awful lot of stick in its first two years. Scour newspapers, magazines, websites and blogs that commented on the introduction of the PGA Tour's year-long competition and you'll be hard-pressed to find a single article that had anything nice to say. Four playoff tournaments in four weeks would never guarantee top players' participation, said a few. The $10 million first prize was not a barrow-load of dollar bills that would have been exciting, but a boring annuity to be paid in installments, said a few more. The points system didn't leave enough room for changes in the standings and was way too complicated, said just about everybody.
All the dissenters had a point, but to be fair the FedEx Cup didn't really have much chance for creating the end-of-season fireworks that Commissioner Tim Finchem had hoped for. Tiger Woods ('07) and Vijay Singh ('08) were just too darned good and sucked all the excitement out of the competition long before the final nine holes of the final round of the final tournament of the season.
Two years ago, Woods, with six wins, including a major, two WGC events and a playoff event, could have skipped the Tour Championship in Atlanta and still won the shiny Tiffany trophy and $10 million bonus. As it happens, he made it seven wins for the year with an eight-stroke victory over Mark Calcavecchia after shooting an incredible 72-hole total of 257 at East Lake Golf Club. Singh entered the first playoff event last year in seventh place in the standings, but then proceeded to win the Barclays at Ridgewood CC and the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston, all but ensuring himself of the top prize. Had either player let somebody else have a chance, the points system in place at the time might well have survived. But they didn't, so it couldn't.
This time around, the mathematicians at PGA Tour headquarters came up with a plan which, with the benefit of hindsight, is probably the plan that should have been in place from the outset.
Points during the playoffs, which start tomorrow at Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey, will be worth five times what they were during the regular season. So if you win the Barclays, or the Deutsche Bank Championship, or the BMW Championship, or even the Tour Championship, you earn 2,500 points instead of the 500 Bo Van Pelt got for winning the John Deere Classic. Finish 30th and you get 205 points instead of 41.
That's significant certainly, and will obviously lead to quite a bit of movement in the standings prior to the Tour Championship in the last week of September. Of greater significance, however, is the point at which players' totals are to be reset. Until this year, points were reset, and players ranked, before the playoffs started. This year, points will be reset after the BMW Championship when only the top 30 in the standings will survive. Those 30 will be assigned a new total; the leader will receive 2,500 points, second will get 2,250, third 2,000 and so on down to 210 for the player ranked 30th.
This means that if the player in 30th position coming into the Tour Championship wins the event and the player who was leading finishes 30th, then the player who was in 30th place could still win the FedEx Cup as he will now have a total of 2,710 points (210 + 2,500) compared with the 2,705 (2,500 + 205) for the guy who was leading before the Tour Championship started. Players ranked between 6th and 30th will need to win the tournament and then rely on others to perform or not perform well, as the case may be. But those in the top five will definitely win the Cup if they win at East Lake because if the player in fifth place before the Tour Championship wins, the Tour Championship he will have a total of 4,100 points (1,600 + 2,500). The best the leader going into the event could do would be 4,000 points (2,500 + 1,500 for coming second at the Tour Championship).
As you can see, the new system will throw up its share of complex permutations, too, but the bottom line is that everyone who makes it to the final event will have a mathematical chance of winning the FedEx Cup, and those arriving in Atlanta in the top five will definitely win it if they prevail at East Lake.
The point, of course, is to make the Tour Championship more exciting; no more meaningless processions where all the leader has to do to hoist the silverware is get through 72 holes without being disqualified, hospitalized or kidnapped.
Few will disagree this is a good thing, but nitpickers will be quick to spot the obvious flaw. It's purely hypothetical, because although Steve Marino is in 30th position in the standings right now, he probably won't be in three weeks' time, but it's conceivable - barely, but still possible - that if the 29-year-old from Oklahoma won the Tour Championship he could wind up with the FedEx Cup too, even though the only time anyone has heard from him all year was when he lost in extra holes against Steve Stricker at Colonial in the last week of May and then shared the 36-hole lead at the Open Championship with Tom Watson before shooting 76, 75 on the weekend and plummeting down the leaderboard.
How can that be right?
One of the FedEx Cup's main objectives is to identify and reward the player who has played consistently the best throughout the year, and with all due respect, Steve Marino, or whoever else is in 30th position on September 24, is not that man.
"Clearly, there is increased emphasis on the Tour Championship as the deciding factor in the FedEx Cup," a PGA Tour staff member said in November last year, shortly after the changes were announced. "We believe that's appropriate, in the same way that the culminating event of playoffs in other sports decides the champion regardless of the dominance of one player or team in the regular season or previous playoff events."
Fair enough. No system is going to be perfect, partly because it would be impossible to devise but also because no one can define what the perfect system is anyway. Should it guarantee that the man with the most tournament wins between January and the end of August also claims the season-long competition, regardless of how they fare in the final tournament? Or should everyone good enough to make it to the final tournament have a chance of winning the grand prize, regardless of how few events they won in the regular season?
The issue will be disputed as long as the sport is played. No one, however, can dispute that the FedEx Cup has achieved its other great objective: to bring the world's best players together more often at the climax of the season. In 2007, Woods played three times in four weeks, as did Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. Singh played four straight, as have Sergio Garcia and Jim Furyk. Last year as Woods tended to his healing knee, Mickelson, Singh, Garcia, Kenny Perry, Camilo Villegas and Anthony Kim each played all four while Padraig Harrington played the first three before being eliminated.
This year, the word is both Woods and Mickelson will tee it up at all four. Woods didn't play the Barclays last year obviously, and nor did he in '07, apparently because of a perceived dislike of Westchester Country Club. This year, the tournament has moved to Jersey City and the incredible $129 million Liberty National GC, which former Reebok chairman Paul Fireman transformed from a contaminated waste dump and former oil refinery site that was part of the Rockefeller's Standard Oil empire, into a 7,400-yard championship golf course with jaw-dropping views of the Statue of Liberty, standing proud just 1,000 yards across the Upper New York Bay. Bob Cupp and Tom Kite designed the course, which was 17 years in the making and which members can reach by a high-speed boat with on-board concierge service from various points in Manhattan.
So noteworthy is this course, the main story this week will not be who's moving up or down the FedEx Cup points standings, or even if the changes made to this year's format will work. The main talking point will be how on Earth Cupp and Kite built the venue on top of thousands of tons of toxic trash and heavy metals.
Well, for a couple of days at least.
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. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.