Golf’s Playoffs — Weird or Just Pointless?

published August 26, 2010

Today, the Answer Man handles all your questions about the PGA Tour and its FedExCup playoffs.

Q: Playoffs?  Don’t talk about – playoffs?  You kidding me?  Playoffs?

Yes, Coach Mora, we’re talking about playoffs.

Q: When are these playoffs exactly?

They begin today, at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, New Jersey, with The Barclays.  The second round is next week, the Deutsche Bank Championship at the TPC Boston, in Norton, Massachusetts.  The third round is the BMW Championship, at Cog Hill in Lemont, Illinois.

Q: Are there any American sponsors?

The grand final big-big event is The Tour Championship Presented By Coca-Cola, at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia.  You can’t get much more American than Coca-Cola.

Q: Why does golf need playoffs, when it has the majors?

Pro golf may have the majors, but the PGA Tour doesn’t.  The four majors are controlled by Augusta National Golf Club, the United States Golf Association, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, and the Professional Golfers Association of America.  The latter is the organization governing teaching pros; the tournament players split off from it in 1968.

The Tour wanted a way to keep the top players interested and active after the fourth major was finished in mid-August.  It tried putting up an enormous pile of cash for its late-October Tour Championship, restricted to the top 30 players on the money list.  The pile turned out not to be big enough; in 2006, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods both skipped the season-ending event, and Woods still led the money list by a comfortable margin.  And no one cared about a golf tournament in the midst of football season.

If money can’t lure ‘em, the Tour decided, try an obscene amount of money.  FedEx signed on as sponsor and donor of the tastefully named FedExCup.  A ten-million dollar first-place bonus was enough to get even the richest players’ attention, and the long line of zeroes was seen as a major attraction in the boom year of 2007.  Today, it’s easier to find an Arizona Democrat than to locate the payout details on the PGA Tour website.

Q: But why does golf need playoffs, when it has majors?

It doesn’t.

Q: How do players qualify for these playoffs?

Instead of money, players earn FedExCup points for their performance in PGA Tour events, World Golf Championship events, and the majors.  These points may be exchanged for a variety of goods and services at friendly neighborhood FedEx Kinko’s locations.  Or so they would have you believe, since the money list has been banned from public sight since January 2007.

Q: They’re quite exclusive, then, the playoffs?

Yes, only the top 125 on the points list make it to the starting line.

Q: Isn’t that a big number?

The average Tour event has 156 players in it, so by that measure, it is exclusive.

Q: But the second round is much tougher, right?

Sure.  Only 100 players make it to Boston.

Q: The first tournament only eliminates one-fifth of the field?

Yup.  And the second one eliminates another thirty, leaving seventy for the BMW Championship.

Q: These don’t sound like any playoffs I’ve ever seen.

You or anyone.  Then there’s the question of the carryover and the reset.

Q: Do I want to know?

Probably not, but here goes: Each playoff event is worth five times as many points as a regular tournament.  Those points are added to the players’ season-long totals to determine the thirty who advance to the Tour Championship.  The points are then reset based on the standings, no matter how big the margins between the places may be.

Q: What’s the point of that?

To keep anyone from clinching the Cup before the final event, as Vijay Singh did in 2008.  He won the first two tournaments in the playoffs, and needed only to finish the Tour Championship on his feet to take the Cup.

Q: So you could win the playoffs before they were over?

Could, yes, but no longer can.  Any of the top five on the points list will win the season-long Cup race by winning the Tour Championship.  Players farther down the list, from 6 to 15, will have to have help, but they’ll have a reasonable chance if they win.  The rest will still have a mathematical chance, but not a likely one.

Q: Which means it all comes down to how you do in one tournament at the end?

Largely, yes, because it’s anticlimactic otherwise.

Q: And this differs from a major, how exactly?

Not very much, I guess.

Q: Has Dustin Johnson read the local rules sheet?

His answer, when asked, was, “No.  I might do that.”

Q: I have a feeling it’s going to come down to Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk.

Not this week.  Furyk won’t be playing at The Barclays, because he overslept and missed his pro-am start time Wednesday.  It’s not technically a disqualification; they simply declare him “ineligible” to play.  This is another important distinction between the playoff events and majors: Majors don’t have pro-ams.

As for Tiger, you’d better look fast.  He came in ranked 112th, and he’ll need to make the cut and may have to reach the top 55 or so to make it to week two.  That’s no sure thing for the 2K10 edition of Tiger Woods.

Q: I have a headache.

If you see Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, ask him how he copes with his.  He’s had plenty of practice this year.

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