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O'Connell's Corner: Playoffs?


Why the FedExCup Needs Change and Needs It Now


The PGA Tour needs to come to grips with a few realities, and its needs to do so soon.

A few years back, the Tour acknowledged that golf often slips from the mind of the casual fan following the last of the four major tournaments by establishing the FedExCup, a season long, 10 million dollar prize capped by a five week playoff tournament following the PGA Championship. Now, the Tour must admit that the FedExCup needs fixing if the PGA does not wish to see the Playoffs become an afterthought in the mind of the general public.

By saying this, I do not mean to take away from the great golf that fans have gotten to see over the past five weeks, especially yesterday’s playoff that ended the TOUR Championship and gave Bill Haas his first FedExCup. Instead what I wish to argue is that the current system in place remains too complicated and contains too many fundamental flaws to draw in the average sports fan, especially during the time of year in which the NFL season starts and baseball pennant races come down to the wire.

First, the FedExCup Playoffs are not, by definition, a playoff. Sure, a certain number of golfers get eliminated following each of the four FedExCup tournaments, but they get eliminated in such a way that one would be remiss to call the system a true playoff.

Take, for instance, one of the Tour’s most promising young players, Keegan Bradley. Bradley, who following victories at the Byron Nelson and the PGA Championship had one of the finest seasons a rookie has ever had, finished 20th in the final FedExCup standings after tying for 11th at the TOUR Championship. The standings don’t reflect, however, that Bradley missed the cut at the Barclays and the Deutsche Bank Championship, the first two tournaments of the FedExCup Playoffs. But by the grace of his outstanding regular season that allowed him to enter the Playoffs ranked fifth in the standings, Bradley advanced each week to the next tournament.

I can’t recall anything like this ever happening in another playoff. When Iowa State, a two-seed, lost to 15th seeded Hampton in the 2001 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, did the tournament committee declare that because Iowa State had a great regular season they could advance to the second round? Of course not. Why then, in golf, does the regular season factor so heavily into the Playoffs?

Instead what the PGA Tour has called a playoff more closely resembles the Chase for the Sprint Cup in NASCAR. Like NASCAR, golf does not necessarily lend itself to a playoff system because the sport entails one player going against a field of other players rather than two teams going against each other.

For this reason, I would propose to the PGA Tour a name change. Calling the current system a playoff lacks a certain accuracy and authenticity, and perhaps altering its title could lend the Playoffs a little more credibility.

Another way the Tour might go about improving the system could be fundamentally alter the system as it now stands. If there’s one thing international testing data and a room full of third graders could corroborate, it’s that Americans don’t like math. Why then, does the PGA Tour feel the need to take the competitive nature of a pure playoff and spice it up with a point system that requires an advanced math degree to completely comprehend?

This leads me to my second proposal to the Tour, even though no one there has asked me. After using the season standings to seed players at the beginning of the Playoffs, throw them out. Instead of taking the top 100 in the standings following the Barclays, take the golfers who finished in the top 100 at the Barclays. That way, just like if a one-seed gets knocked out by an eight-seed in the first round of the NBA playoffs, a top-ten player could see his chances ended in week one. Not only will this lend to the system being more like a true playoff, but a superstar getting eliminated in the opening round will certainly cause a greater media storm than a player missing the cut, but still surviving another week.

A third option that no one seems to argue for besides me involves a fundamental change to the format of the golf: make the FedExCup Playoffs a match play tournament. Some may argue the Accenture World Match Play Championship already accomplishes this function, but to combine the win-or-go-home nature of match play with the $10 million prize of the FedExCup could result in some of the most dramatic and exciting golf in recent memory.

In order to make this work, take the 125 players who qualified for the Barclays and add three more to make it an even 128. From there, make four brackets of 32 and carry out a tournament as one would unfold in March Madness. Such a system would require a player to win seven matches before hoisting the FedExCup, which could be condensed into three weekends rather than four, letting the Tour’s players to gain some much deserved rest, and allowing the best players on the European Tour to come across the pond.

To continue on the last point of attracting European players, two of this year’s four major winners did not participate in the 2011 FedExCup Playoffs. This leads me to argue also for a lowering in the minimum number of PGA Tour tournaments played necessary for competition.

If the PGA wants to have the FedExCup maintain relevance over the coming years, Tour officials are going to have to make some serious changes to the current system. Whether it be a branding change or a change in the format of play, one thing is for certain: I heard a lot more chat on the street this morning about the Bills beating the Pats in Week 3 than I did about Bill Haas winning the FedExCup.