FedEx Cup explained — sort of

“You know, I don’t quite understand it all yet, haven’t quite gotten up to speed, because it keeps changing.”

– Tiger Woods at the end of December on the FedEx Cup

Called the “biggest change in the competitive era” of modern golf by [photopress:fedexcup.jpg,full,alignright]PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, the FedEx Cup is officially on. Now what that means exactly, is the question.

Last September when I played in the Canadian Open Pro-Am with Charles Warren, a member of the PGA Tour players’ advisory board, the young tour pro asked me what I knew of the FedEx Cup.

“Well, someone wins $10 million and there’s some sort of playoff,” I said as I prepared to putt on the 13th green at Hamilton Golf and Country Club. “Beyond that, I can’t say I’ve really figured it out.”

Warren assured me the tour would educate reporters on the significance of the FedEx Cup and its playoff system, but that proved difficult as the tour at the time wasn’t even sure of how it would all work. The system kept getting tweaked, especially the playoff concept, until a final version was set in November.

Despite Woods’ comments (which may come from the fact he couldn’t care less about the FedEx Cup or padding his wallet with another $10 million — isn’t that what Dubai is for?), Orlando columnist Steve Elling summed the series up concisely:

Simply put, over the first 71/2 months of the season, players will accrue points based on performance. The top 144 will advance to a month-long series of $7 million events in New York, Boston and Chicago, with fields trimmed at each of the three stops. The final 30 advance to Atlanta, where the overall points winner will claim the biggest bonus in professional sports.

The promise of $10 million should make the event a slamdunk. But it doesn’t even guarantee that Woods, who is expecting his first child in early summer, or the likes of Phil Mickelson, will participate.

Indeed, premier players will be expected to play six times in a seven-week span beginning with the Bridgestone Invitational in August. Woods and Mickelson, who generally average between 18-22 starts annually, never have played so many events in such a short time. Make no mistake, the two star players were instrumental in lobbying the tour effectively to shorten the length of the season. Now they will face pressure to support the new format.

“Is Tiger going to play the last six events in a row?” said veteran Chris DiMarco, slightly off on his math but making his point nonetheless. “If he’s going to play the last six tournaments and our ratings go way up, then it’s worth it. There’s no doubt everybody out here knows where our bread is buttered. It’s Tiger Woods.”

Elling also notes the FedEx Cup isn’t actually the end of the PGA Tour season. In fact, with seven events after the culmination of the FedEx Cup, it is kind of like having the Yankees win the World Series and then having 30 games left to play. It doesn’t make sense.

Geoff Shackelford pokes fun at the new system in a Golf Observer column, noting the odds of various stories being written on the FedEx system:

Initial column or story quoting players that they don’t understand why the system would make them alter their schedules, with a look at how players are not increasing the number of events they play.
Over/under line: March 15

First column where it is noted that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are playing less than ever and there is little chance they will play in all of the “playoff” events come September.
Over/under line: April 30
First writer to note that the elaborate FedEx points system not only provides little incentive for players to play more, but also makes it impossible to follow the “playoffs” and that the winner of the Tour Championship most likely will not be the winner of the Fed Ex Cup.
Over/under line: June 1

First columnist to read the previous column and suggest that the Tour instead wipe the points clean at the Tour Championship and offer a shootout ala the LPGA’s ADT Championship. Column will note how such a final day shootout with a $10 million annuity on the line would be a ratings bonanza.
Over/under line: October 1

As I see it, the main problem with the FedEx system is that most players, writers and spectators still aren’t buying in. The notion of a playoff means that the individual who wins the final event wins the playoff. Otherwise it would be like a team winning the 7th game of the Stanley Cup, but not winning the actual cup. That turns out to be exactly what can happen in the FedEx Cup, as SI columnist Alan Shipnuck aptly notes:

Certainly the finish to this year will be more satisfying than the endless slog we have always had to endure in previous autumns. But it’s hard to get excited about a “playoff” that begins with 144 players, roughly the number of guys who tee it up every other week of the year, especially when the Tour’s statistical models have made it clear that only the top dozen or so players after the points reset have a chance to win the overall Cup. It’s also a very good possibility that the winner of the season-ending Tour Championship will not be the champion of the FedEx Cup — that’ll feel a little weird.

My take? Well, I must admit the whole affair doesn’t excite me like a British Open. I’ve always appreciated that a pro golfer’s salary is fully dependant on his or her ability to have success, but I’m not that impressed by big figures being thrown around — like $10 million. And if someone who has had a good — but not extraordinary season — can’t win this new playoff, which has been indicated by some PGA Tour officials, then I wonder how much genuine excitement will be generated. After all, if Ben Curtis can come out of nowhere to win the British Open, why can’t a similar player win the FedEx Cup?

Of course that’s because a Curtis-type player winning the playoff is the worst nightmare for the tour. They want Phil or Tiger or Ernie to win the event — those players guarantee a certain level of ratings, even on the Golf Channel.

Will the FedEx Cup be a failure? The odds appear stacked against its success. But with Tim Finchem’s reputation — and perhaps job — on the line, I wouldn’t necessarily bet against its chances of success.

A full FedEx Cup primer can be found here.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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