Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Best is the Best of the Worst Cases

By Ryan Ballengee

As Jim Furyk hit his bunker shot from short and right of the pin at East Lake's closing hole, he was wishing that the spin he imparted with his explosion shot would catch the wet putting surface and leave him an easy putt for $11.35 million. When it caught just 30 inches away from the hole, a collective sigh of relief was breathed by Furyk, his self-named team, fans, and the people at the PGA Tour.

You see, at multiple stages during Sunday's final round of the Tour Championship, the PGA Tour was bracing for any of multiple nightmare scenarios for their coupled trophies.

At one point on Sunday, it was plausible that one of two players — neither of which who had won a PGA Tour event in 2010 — could win the FedExCup. In the case of Luke Donald, he could take the FedExCup with a win. Even scarier, Ryder Cup snub Paul Casey could have won the FedExCup if the right player won and he finished alone in second place. What's the opposite of a Pyrrhic victory again? A Casey conquest?

Matt Kuchar, the man who entered the final event at the top of the FedExCup standings and most hurt by its drama-infusing reset, played horribly in his collegiate home this week. With no chance to win the tournament on Sunday, no one told Kuchar he still had a chance to win the FedExCup. If he finished better than solo 25th and Nick Watney won the Tour Championship, he could have won the hardware and the life-changing seven figure bonus.

Confused? Don't be. The points system isn't only complicated for fans. It's so complicated for the players that they didn't even play to the points. The suggestion of such strategery generated a snicker from Matt Kuchar, so downtrodden by the lousy effort during the first three days that it was nearly impossible for him to muster hope that a pitiful close to the playoffs could hand him the bounty it offered.

In the end, Jim Furyk winning the Tour Championship and the FedExCup was the best possible scenario for the Tour and its playoff concept. For one thing, Furyk actually won a tournament this year. In fact, he won two, which was tied for the PGA Tour lead in this most bizarre of years. The third win handed Furyk the lead for the year on these shores and tied him for most wins on the two major men's tours on the planet. Effectively, the third win differentiated Furyk from the other contenders for Player of the Year. The reward of offseason hardware will cap off Furyk's most accomplished season in his long career.

Jim may even be able to propel himself into the World Golf Hall of Fame — right next to President George HW Bush — on the back of this win. Sure, the 2003 U.S. Open was great, but this FedExCup, that locked it up.

Even so, the FedExCup champion for 2010 becomes the second guy who didn't play in all four series events to take the title. In 2007, Tiger Woods defiantly avoided the Barclays at Westchester because he hates the course. No matter, though. Woods won the third and fourth events in the playoffs to claim his $10 million annuity. Knowing what happened in the last ten months, that's got to be sweet money to have in the pension account.

Vijay Singh may have played all four events in winning the FedExCup in 2008, but he only had to participate in three. Singh merely had to finish the Tour Championship to claim the trophy in a Woods-less playoffs.

After a thrilling finish with several deserving players in the mix at the end for the last playoff event and all of its marbles, the same scenario developed in 2010. The difference this time is that the among the handful of players who had a realistic chance on Sunday afternoon to take it all down, only one really deserved it. Fortunately, he won.

(That's not to say anything of contesting a golf tournament which decided nearly $43 million in payouts was done so in conditions after which normally the Red Cross pays out that kind of cash. A logistical nightmare was avoided though hopefully this will quiet the minority of Tour whiners who need a week off out of four tournaments in succession.)

The right guy won, though, and that's great. But we walk away from the 2010 FedExCup thinking that there has to be a better way. Maybe it is cumulative par over four events — 288 holes for $10 million — as suggested by SI's Gary Van Sickle. Perhaps as I and other have advocated, it is a series of simple to understand cuts that lead to a single tournament shootout for all the money. Or the points could stay, but keep the shootout. Then there are different forms to the shootout — straight medal play, modified Stableford, the LPGA's innovative (and currently retired) playoff event, match play, match of cards.

The possibilities are endless. None would probably be perfect. So let me muddy the water even further with one more master plan for the FedExCup.

First, 120 cannot start the playoffs. It needs to be 90 — or 70 — enough to have the full field play four rounds and it not be a logistical nightmare. Entering the first playoff event, points are not reset. The points for the first event are only slightly more than a major. Instead of 500, 550, or 600 for an event, make it 800 or a 1,000 points. The players that are then in the top 60 move onto the next event, which gives away 1200 or 1500 points for first. Then cut to 40. Have a third event with points more valuable than the other two, and cut down the thirty.

The point is to make each playoff event more valuable than the one before it. The drama seems more natural. It placates critics who feel the points system is an insult to the majors and a sure display of PGA Tour hubris. Most importantly, it increases the stakes to every round of the playoffs.

Playoff series, though, are all a setup for the end. Athletes get to the finale, the title game moment in order to have an equal chance to become champion. The beauty of most playoffs — at least this nation's most successful — is the one-game scenario.

The PGA Tour has repeatedly said it supports the tournament within a tournament, though. So here's my compromise: be like the ladies used to be (and should be again) and play the Tour Championship with the format behind the old ADT Championship. Play 36 qualifying holes, cut the field to 16. Another 18 and another cut to eight. Then wipe the slate for a single round for all of the money. If everyone complains, make it cumulative score for the top eight. It will probably be close anyhow.

Sure, it might sound unfair, but playoffs aren't supposed to be fair. They're not even supposed to identify the best player. Repeatedly for four years now, critics have mistakenly confused the playoff format with an attempt to identify the best player. That's the USGA's goal — not the PGA Tour's. They want ratings. They want ROI. They want eyeballs. One round for $10+ million will do that.

Even better? There's no way any network needs to tape delay a final round competed among eight players.

Then again, since the right guy won this time, the likelihood that the right way will manifest itself next year is unlikely.

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