19th hole: FedEx Cup changes could drain the drama out of playoffs

Sep 23, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Justin Rose holds the FedEx Cup as he talks to Tiger Woods who won the Tour Championship golf tournament at East Lake Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

19th hole: FedEx Cup changes could drain the drama out of playoffs

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19th hole: FedEx Cup changes could drain the drama out of playoffs

The FedEx Cup will be better going forward. And the season-long PGA Tour “playoffs” will still live under expectations compared to all other sports.

Yes, Steve Sands will go back to interviewing players instead of explaining mind-numbing projections. A hard-working algorithm can finally take a long-awaited vacation, likely never to visit East Lake again. With the scoring relegated to one leaderboard featuring a built-in 10-under-par advantage for the Cup leader, fans and players will have a competition they can easily follow.

If all goes well and the new format survives, the conclusion to the PGA Tour season should be compelling enough to watch most years. But the Tour Championship, now just a FedEx Cup concluding tournament adding a season-long excellence bias, will be missing the core component of any great playoff: rejection.

The new FedEx Cup borrows a guiding and fatal flaw of its predecessor in resisting rejection by trying to influence on-the-field play. Yet America loves winners but secretly adores watching how others handle losing. The PGA Tour says it’s all about fan engagement these days, but the millions who tune into reality shows or playoffs in other sports also enjoy the process of elimination.

“Jay [Monahan] referenced how involved our players and the membership has been throughout the process,” said the PGA Tour’s Andy Pazdur. “To have the overwhelming support for this new system that we have received from the players has been just fantastic.”

Sep 23, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Justin Rose lines up his putt on the fourth green during the final round of the Tour Championship golf tournament at East Lake Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Rose kept the big picture in his sights all weekend at East Lake. Next year, it might not be so easy. (John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports)

Actually, player support is not always fantastic.

Had this been up to fans, some players or media, the playoffs would eventually let go of protecting season-long play and turned the players loose to decide the FedEx Cup. Gasp! Upsets might occur. Rejections in the form of a Tour Championship cut could have created shocking twists. Fans would have been more engaged by the possibility of an upset.

Imagine a simple scenario in which the PGA Tour retained four days of Tour Championship play by keeping the hard-working algorithm in business a few days longer while also deciding a legitimate tournament. Then send the final six FedEx Cup leaders to a fifth day with an 18- or 36-hole shootout for the new first prize of $15 million that anyone can follow.

“I would say that internally, we had a lot of discussion about a format like that, coming down to 18 holes or coming down to 36 holes, whether you were four or six players, and we brought that forward,” Monahan said.

You know where this is going: Over-coddled players said no to losing even though everyone at East Lake goes home with a big bonus check.

“We didn’t get a whole lot of traction on those concepts just because players felt like – you look at the FedEx Cup and the fact that I’m battling from the Safeway Open to the Wyndham Championship, I make my way into the playoffs, and it’s going to come down to an 18-hole shootout?”

Yes, actually. Or 36 holes with a cut after the first 18? We could watch a couple of players head to the parking lot, salute them for a valiant effort and know they are still a few million dollars richer thanks to $70 million in the new bonus pool from FedEx and Wyndham.

Fans criticized the new format on social media by making clear more money does not pique their interest. They want memorable and compelling playoffs in which the winner is decided on the field. Sometimes, regular-season form does not translate to Game 7 success. Upstarts and upsets make great theater. Then the money becomes compelling.

“The proper way to do this is ultimately where we ended up,” said Monahan, “which is let’s make it opaque, everybody understands where they are coming in.”

So while the FedEx Cup is much easier to follow, the overriding principle plaguing the playoffs in the previous iteration lives on by rewarding season-long excellence until the very end, even at the risk of a runaway snoozefest.

To engage fans, the final outcome has to be decided on the course free of algorithms and strokes-based systems. The PGA Tour’s executive ranks delivered huge bonus increases and in return should have told top players that with such riches comes a possibility of being voted off the island, fired and sent home a whopping one day early.

Because if someone is playing the golf of their life over the course of three weeks and sneaks in to win the big prize, life will go on. There is nothing opaque about the excitement such a playoff could produce. Gwk

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