Since the PGA Tour introduced the FedExCup Playoffs in 2007, tour officials have strived to find the best format for determining a season-long champion.
Over the past dozen years, the tour has made several changes to the Playoffs points system after the first one was found to have a serious problem in terms of having the FedExCup champion determined in the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club, which will be played August 22-25.
Tiger Woods was the inaugural FedExCup champion, winning the last two Playoffs events including the Tour Championship to wrap up the sizeable bonus awarded to the first place finisher in the final standings. No problem.
But when Vijay Singh won the first two Playoffs events of 2008 in New Jersey and Boston, he arrived at East Lake with such a substantial lead in points that all he had to do to win the FedExCup title was stay on his feet for 72 holes.
Singh finished ahead of only seven of the 30 Tour Championship qualifiers that year, and still held the FedExCup trophy after the tournament, even though Camilo Villegas won a playoff that day to cap one of the most exciting finishes in Tour Championship history. The victory was the second straight for Villegas in the Playoffs, but Singh’s lead was so large after his two wins that Villegas was unable to catch him.
That situation convinced the tour that something had to be done to prevent that from recurring, and the concept of a points reset was introduced prior to the 2009 Playoffs. Since that time, the tour has tweaked the points distribution a few times, but the basic concept has remained the same. Every player who qualifies for the Tour Championship has at least a mathematical possibility of winning the FedExCup even though the reset gave the leaders in the standings coming to the Tour Championship the best chance.
There have been several instances in which the Tour Championship winner did not win the FedExCup, beginning in 2009 when Phil Mickelson shot a final round 65 to erase a 4-stroke deficit after 54 holes and beat Woods by three shots. Woods, who won the previous Playoffs event in Chicago, finished first in the final standings, and since he emerged as the FedExCup champion despite not winning the Tour Championship, there were no serious objections.
For the next seven years, the Tour Championship winner also was the FedExCup champion. Among them was Bill Haasin 2011, who began the week 25thon the points list and needed some less-than-stellar showings from several of the FedExCup leaders that week to claim the season-long title.
But the run of seven straight dual winners ended in 2017, when Xander Schauffele edged out Justin Thomas by a shot to win the Tour Championship, with Thomas narrowly finishing ahead of good buddy Jordan Spieth to claim the FedExCup trophy.
The constantly changing standings, which began the previous year whenRory Mcilroy won a three-way playoff, made the Golf Channel’s Steve Sands a fixture of NBC’s final round broadcast, as he updated the changes on his white board, covering the various contingencies of who would win if this or that happened.
Sands carried on the political tradition of the white board made famous by NBC’s Tim Russert during the hotly-contested 2000 Presidential election and his able replacement, MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki. Although Sands sometimes made the scenarios a little more complicated than they really were, his frequent on-air appearances exemplified the volatile nature of a points system predicated not on just how one or two players were doing, but how they finished in the tournament relative to the entire field.
Once again, Sands got plenty of TV times last year when Woods won for the first time in more than five years but finished second in the final FedExCup standings when Justin Rose edged him out with a birdie on the 72ndhole for the most lucrative tie for fourth in tournament golf history.
Woods’ fans, many of whom don’t pay much attention to the PGA Tour when Tiger is not involved and have little or no idea what the FedExCup is, could not comprehend that their hero won the tournament but did not get the FedExCup trophy as well.
Even some mathematically-challenged golf fans who follow the sport even when Woods is not playing, were somewhat puzzled by the fact that one player could win the Tour Championship while someone else won the FedExCup.
The concept is not that difficult to grasp, but there are a lot of fans who simply do not want to deal with a situation that makes a sporting event more complicated than one team/player wins and the other team/players lose.
The most prominent sporting event where fans have to process something more than just winning or losing is soccer’s World Cup pool play, and golf has a version of that in the relatively new format for the WGC Match Play Championship.
But those situations do not occur on championship day, and after the Tour Championship/FedExCup results of the last two years, the PGA Tour decided to end the possibility of dual champions and put Sands’ white board out of commission.
Instead of resetting points before the 30 qualifiers arrive at East Lake, the PGA Tour has instituted a strokes-based system that will result in just one champion at the end of the day, even if that champion is not entirely legitimate.
The strokes-based system will spot all but the bottom five players in the standings anywhere from one to 10 shots, which essentially turns the Tour Championship into the PGA Tour’s first ever net division tournament.
The leader in the FedExCup standings after this week’s Playoffs event in Chicago will begin the Tour Championship at minus-10 on the scoreboard. No. 2 is minus-8, No. 3 is minus-7, No. 4 is minus-6 and No. 5 is minus-5. Players 6-to-10 are minus-4, 11-15 are minus-3, 16-20 are minus-2 and 21-25 are minus-1. Players 26-30 begin the Tour Championship at even par.
According to PGA Tour statisticians, the probability is that players at various spots in the standings have about the same chance of winning the FedExCup as they would have under the current format. Woods, however, would not have won the Tour Championship last year if the newly-installed format was in effect last year.
The dilemma the tour has faced is devising a system that approximates the Playoffs of other sports but will still give every player in the field a chance to win the FedExCup at the outset of the Tour Championship.
If the tour wanted to create a true Playoffs feel, they would start all 125 players at zero for the first event and let the best player for three events (down from four for the first time) win the FedExCup trophy. That would not guarantee that the player in 30thplace would have a chance to win the title, but if he won at East Lake he would likely be no worse than third in the final standings, and it would almost certainly guarantee that one of the three Playoffs winners would be the FedExCup champion.
However, that would render how a player performs during the regular season irrelevant, and that would be self-defeating for the tour. They could preserve the regular season points for the Playoffs with no reset and let the quadruple-points for the Playoffs determine a champion without any input from the numbers crunchers.
That would result in a more deserving champion, but the players who tee off on Thursday at East Lake with no chance to win the FedExCup might not appreciate that. And the fans might be deprived of a contested finish if the regular season No. 1 wins one of the first two Playoffs events.
By now, it has likely dawned on the people employed by the PGA Tour to devise the best system for the Playoffs that there is no perfect solution.
The format in place in recent years seemed to be working pretty well, but the tour evidently doesn’t think its fan base can deal with the multiple contingences deciding the FedExCup or accept that the winner of the Tour Championship is not automatically the FedExCup champion.
With the changes to format, the Tour Championship has been transformed into something of a gimmick, as evidenced by the reaction of the board of the Official World Golf Ranking. The OWGR will continue to offer points from the Tour Championship, but will ignore its scoring system and award first place points to the player who actually shoots the lowest score for 72 holes.
The question the PGA Tour will likely have to address at the conclusion of the Tour Championship is whether ensuring that only one player win both the tournament and the FedExCup is worth altering the concept of tournament golf to appease fans who may not even watch if Woods doesn’t qualify.
Bring back Steve Sands and his white board.