2005: Tour makes its playoff push
First things first: If Tiger Woods ever wins the points race that leads to a FedEx Cup title, he promises he won’t be jumping on any car hoods.
Not that the PGA Tour as we know it is any broken-down jalopy, mind you, but PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem last week provided a glimpse into the Tour’s fast-lane future.
Confirming what has been reported for weeks (Golfweek, Oct. 15), Finchem on Nov. 2 unveiled bits and pieces of a Tour blueprint for 2007 and beyond, revealing plans for a condensed eight-month season for top players that – borrowing a page from NASCAR – will culminate in a lucrative, four-event Championship Series, the overall points winner taking home the FedEx Cup.
That’s right. The PGA Tour finally will have a playoff season.
“In terms of a finish, really we’re the only major sport that doesn’t have a stronger finish than our regular season – a playoff system, if you will,” Finchem said.
The Tour will get the Big Bang finish it covets beginning in 2007, when the Tour’s next television contract begins. Television negotiations for 2007-10 will convene later this month and are expected to be completed by early January.
In ’07, players will compete from January to mid-August to position themselves to get into three beefed-up, high-paying, 144-player events expected to be slated for New York, Boston and Chicago. (The New York and Chicago-based events could rotate to different sites, with the Western Open possibly moving throughout the Midwest). The top 30 points accumulators in those three tournaments will advance to the season-culminating Tour Championship in Atlanta.
Whoever has the most points after the Tour Championship collects the FedEx Cup, as well as what Finchem termed a “significant” bonus payout that likely will be “the largest payout in competitive sports as it relates to a playoff-like situation.” Tournament sources say the FedEx Cup champion will receive a bonus of $10 million. For perspective, leading money winner Tiger Woods collected $10.62 million in 21 events this season.
Players would be seeded at the start of the Championship Series depending on their play from January-August (Player 1 would have a built-in points advantage over, say, Player 10.) Many details have yet to be worked out – such as how points will be distributed – and Finchem did not address particulars of the 2007 schedule.
However, at the conclusion of the Championship Series in ’07, the PGA Tour season then would resume with a “Quest for the Card” fall series, which would consist of six or seven autumn events in which players would position themselves among the top 125 on the money list, essentially becoming eligible for the points race the following season.
The tournaments that follow the Tour Championship would be official events with “solid” purses (“Solid means they’re not going down,” Finchem said), and those winners would enjoy all the perks that winning any other time of year would bring.
The general consensus is that most top echelon players, after competing in seven or eight events in a nine-week stretch late in the season – from the WGC-NEC Invitational preceding the PGA to the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup in late September – basically would shut it down during the post-Tour Championship events. International players would be able to support events staged in other parts of the globe.
Finchem said a mid-September finish would help the PGA Tour better define the parameters of its season, and will inject needed excitement to a finish that currently is lacking.
“This is going to bring the whole game of golf to a different level,” said Vijay Singh.
Will a new look to the schedule make for a more attractive package to bring to TV?
“Certainly, the things the Tour are doing add value to the TV package,” said Neil Pilson, former president of CBS and now an industry consultant. “We have seen the success of the end-of-the-year competitions with NASCAR and, obviously, team sports. But remember, golf is going through a marketplace adjustment.
The networks seem reasonably content with their current schedules, linking their tour events to the majors they carry. So how much is anyone interested in moving off that?”
Finchem said the four-week Championship Series didn’t necessarily have to be tied to one network.
“The good news is that it’s a strong enough series,” he said, “that wherever it goes, it brings strength with it.”
The 2005 PGA Tour season began Jan. 6 and didn’t end until the last putt fell 10 months later. Length of season – and a shrinking “offseason” – has been a hot-button issue on Tour for some time. Each August after the PGA Championship, the sizzle tends to leave the Tour’s season, with golf fading out once football season arrives.
Asked if the PGA Tour needed to do something as it headed into another round of TV negotiations, Tiger Woods firmly responded, “Without a doubt.”
“I think we have no interest after basically the PGA,” Woods said. “There’s so many great things – the NBA is kicking off now, football season is in the middle of the season, great races, hockey . . . and here we are trying to get some TV time. It’s just not working out.”
The new scheduling format likely will pit the game’s better players against one another more often than the current structure. Some say it’s little more than a “rich-get-richer” scenerio for top players. Surely, getting hot at the right time could have financial rewards like never before.
“There’s been a long history of top guys wanting to get a bigger and bigger piece of the pie,” says Olin Browne. “They feel like they’re the ones who move the needle, and to some extent they are. But if top guys were playing against top guys all the time, some of those top guys wouldn’t be top guys anymore, would they?”
The Championship Series will have 144 players teeing it up in the first three events, but with the points structure not finalized, it’s not known how many of those players would have a mathematical chance to capture the FedEx Cup. If there was a bubbling concern for those not typically among the Tour’s top tier, it would be playing opportunities; those outside the top 144 could face a month off come mid-September ’07. Finchem said it’s possible those players could drop down and play Nationwide events.
As far as playing opportunities, Finchem expects total rounds on Tour in ’07 to be about the same as ’06, which eases the main concerns of some, such as J.J. Henry, a member of the 16-person Player Advisory Council.
“The Tour is about 150 players,” reminds Henry, “not just the top 10.”
Gentleman, start your engines.
– Rex Hoggard, John Steinbreder contributed