The PGA’s FedEx Cup Conundrum

The FedEx Cup is in its second year of existence. It was implemented last season on the PGA Tour as part of an effort to give the season — excluding the majors — some cohesiveness and meaning. Additionally, it sought to make golf relevant at the beginning of football season and the stretch run of baseball by having four huge purse events and giving away $35 million in series bonus money.

Last year, the structure of the FedEx Cup was rigid. Only three players outside of the top 30 at the start of the playoffs found their way into the big money Tour Championship — and a significant share of the FedEx bonus pool. Rich Beem became the poster child for the lack of mobility. Having played well in both the Barclays and the Deutsche Bank Championship, Beem's starting position in the FedEx Cup playoffs prevented him from getting into the BMW Championship in Chicago.

As it turned out, the points structure relied too much on positioning before the Playoffs. Tiger Woods won two of four playoff events, skipped the Barclays, and won the inaugural FedEx Cup (which has still has not been kissed in public) going away from the field.

The players on the B and C-list complained and the Tour responded by making the playoff structure more volatile. The reset in points that occurs after the 33 regular season events was narrowed so that there were fewer points between places going into the four event playoff. The points awarded for each playoff event had 2000 added to them at each place for this season — earning 300 points last year would get you 2300 this year.

The idea behind this was to make it possible for someone like Beem to get into more events. After all, the final two events in the FedEx Cup have no cut and dramatically smaller fields — 70 and 30 players, respectively. That means that mediocre players that could meander their way into these events by virtue of two great weeks in the Barclays and Deutsche Bank Championship would be getting a payday that would go a long way in guaranteeing their playing rights for next season.

With bated breath, the Tour waited for the Barclays to unfold and see how it shook out in the standings. Vijay Singh eventually won the Barclays in a playoff over Sergio Garcia and Kevin Sutherland. The outcome turned out to be a perfect example of volatility at play.

Vijay suddenly propelled from seventh place to first in the standings. Certainly, that could not offend anyone. With two wins this season, Singh deserves to be a contender for the $10 million Cup prize.

Sergio Garcia vaulted from 12th to second. That's not that bad, either.

But, Kevin Sutherland hopped — nay, leaped — from 57th to third. He has a legitimate opportunity to get into the Tour Championship and, right now, is a contender to win the FedEx Cup. Sutherland has had a decent season, including three other top-10s, but certainly is not in conversation as the best player on Tour.

Sutherland is the poster child, then, for the problem with the FedEx Cup 2.0. If he stays hot for the next three weeks — admittedly, unlikely — Sutherland could win $10 million. He would be set for life and it would make his career. He could do so by having a regular season in which he basically went unnoticed by every golf fan and member of the media. That, in effect, would be the biggest nightmare of the PGA Tour. A total unknown winning the FedEx Cup could invalidate the concept overnight. It would leave fans wondering what in the world the point is of the FedEx Cup if a player with one career win (2002 Accenture Match Play) could take such a huge prize.

The best players on Tour would revolt knowing that someone like Sutherland's career could be made with a mediocre season and four good weeks in August and September. Vijay Singh's nine win season in 2004 would be matched in four tournaments. The PGA Tour elite feel that they have played their way into the opportunities they enjoy, such as World Golf Championship events, limited field tournaments, and other bonuses. They feel that the threshold to earn a big payday should be much higher than what is facing Sutherland right now.

The anti-Sutherland would be Padraig Harrington. Arguably the PGA Tour Player of the Year, Harrington missed the cut at the Barclays. He went from fourth to 23rd and is in real danger of missing the Tour Championship. Top-tier players would question how in the world that a guy like Harrington could not be featured in the FedEx Cup finale.

Still, Sutherland also represents what the Tour wanted in creating real volatility in the playoff events. The Tour did this with the hope of giving more players a realistic chance to win the FedEx Cup. It also did it with the intent of making the first three Playoff events more meaningful than focusing on the players at the bottom, being cut, instead of the players charging for the top of the standings.

That clearly happened on Sunday with the final results of the Barclays. Not only did Sutherland move up 54 places, but Matt Goggin moved up 50 places to 26th. Kevin Streelman went from 102nd to 37th. All of those moves present opportunities for the Tour to promote these players and for fans to get to know their talents better.

It also made the Barclays more relevant — with or without Tiger — because serious moves in the standings could be made regardless of who is, or isn't, in the field. Last year, Tiger could have skipped the first two of the FedEx Cup events and still won. This year, the wounded Tiger is now in 15th place after entering the Playoffs at No. 1. If Woods experiences an amazing recovery in the next few weeks, he may not be in the Tour Championship field.

In effect, FedEx Cup 2.0 faces an equal set of challenges as last year's rendition. The challenges are from the other side of the looking glass, though. Last year, the format favored the rich and best players and entitled them to a $35 million money grab. This year, that is still mostly true, but will give some scrubs an opportunity at money they may not deserve and a chance to invalidate a format with a single stroke.

Through making the changes it did from one season to the next, the Tour has proven that the FedEx Cup lacks identity. The Tour has to decide whether the intent of the FedEx Cup is to identify the best player of the entire Tour season, or to provide fans and sponsors with a $63 million thrill ride through four weeks to end the summer. Last year, it would appear the former. This year, it would appear the tour seeks the thrill ride.

It must decide, though, and quickly. In an attempt to promote the meaning of the FedEx Cup and promote participation, the PGA Tour convinced several of the bodies behind the major championships to stake invitations to majors based upon the FedEx Cup standings. The top 30 players at season's end get invitations to both the Masters and U.S. Open. Spots like that traditionally had gone to the best of the money list — arguably the best measure available of season-long productivity.

With the new volatility in the standings, though, players could quickly have their good season erased and invitations to majors revoked within four weeks. Though this will likely not happen to more than a handful of players, the majors are much more important to the game than the FedEx Cup. The Tour should plan so accordingly and return to the money list standard for entrance into the majors.

The best outcome for the FedEx Cup is to treat it like a sweepstakes. It addresses the original goals of the FedEx Cup without negatively impacting the careers of players working hard to improve and contend in major championships.

Certainly, $10 million is a lot of money and should go to a deserving winner. But, at the same time, a rigid structure will defeat the purpose of the FedEx Cup and likely lead to the Cup remaining in Tiger Woods' possession for years to come. With only two players other than Woods having won the Player of the Year award in the last decade, it would seem ridiculous to use the FedEx Cup as a coronation ceremony for the best player in the world. In the interest of the Tour, it is better to give the other "these guys" a chance to make a name for themselves and steal some of the spotlight — or, at worst, make Tiger earn his $10 million prize.

Comments and Conversation

September 26, 2009

Alex:

Unlike most team sports, golf is a sport where you can give the player of the year to a statistical winner. In football if you rush for 1800 yards and your team doesn’t make the playoffs would you get player of the year? In baseball if you get 30 home runs and 100 rbi’s and your team doesn’t make the playoffs can you win AL or NL mvp? Every player on tour knows Tiger is the best player in the world and wouldn’t even argue against it. The FedEx Cup is a sham at best to make look like golf has parity. Tiger deserves $10,000,000 dollars every year as a present from the tour for what he does for the game and that would still be short changing him.

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