If you are a golf fan, you have been bombarded for weeks with television ads for the PGA Tour playoffs — or, as the tour would prefer you call them, the "FedEx Cup playoffs.”
Since “ultimate” technically means final, it is not inaccurate to use that word to describe the three tournaments that conclude Aug. 28 in Atlanta. The clear implication, though, is that ultimate in this context means greatest.
As for history? Like I said: Oh, please.
History is made in golf at the four major championships, not in the incredibly lucrative but ultimately (pun intended) nonhistoric playoffs — or, for that matter, at the extremely lucrative and overhyped Players Championship.
For the record, I like the playoffs — at least as individual tournaments. In 2006, after Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson had made it clear they had no interest in playing in the Tour Championship in November, Commissioner Tim Finchem came up with a brilliant idea: He convinced FedEx to pay for a four-tournament playoff and moved the Tour Championship to September.
Money talks — even for very rich athletes. Instead of going home after the four majors and waiting for preholiday exhibitions with guaranteed upfront money, players showed up for the playoffs. The first winner in 2007 was Woods. He refused to kiss the “FedEx Cup” trophy, but he had shown up to play, and that was really all that mattered.
There was, however, a problem with the system then, and even though the tour has tweaked and tweaked, it has never gotten it right. In fact, for all the money and all the hype, the playoffs are basically a scam. Not on the players, who cash huge checks the first two weeks and monstrous checks the third week, but on the public.
It starts with the points system, which is designed to make both the playoffs and the regular season week-to-week tournaments appear more important than they are and the majors less important.
The tour is not in charge of the majors. Augusta National Golf Club, the U.S. Golf Association, the Royal and Ancient and the PGA of America control them and have separate TV deals. That’s why a win at a weekly PGA Tour event is worth 500 FedEx Cup points and a win at a major is worth just 600.
Ask a player the value of winning a major compared with a weekly event. They will tell you it is at least five times as important. Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee told me several years ago that winning a regular tour event was probably worth about $3 million over the course of a career and a major was probably worth closer to $30 million.
Let’s be conservative and say a major is five times as important. That means winning a major should be worth 2,500 points — not 600. The tour also gives 550 to the winner of a number of events, including the Players and the three tournaments hosted by superstars: Tiger Woods’s event at Riviera; Jack Nicklaus’s event, the Memorial; and the late Arnold Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill.
This weekend’s tournament at Memphis gives the winner 2,000 points, as does this coming week’s event in Delaware. In other words, according to the tour, a win in the first two playoff events is worth more than three times as much as a win in a major.
There is lots of money in play here: $15 million in each of the first two weeks and $44.75 million spread among the top 10 finishers at the Tour Championship, with the winner taking home $18 million.
You might point out that doesn’t sound so insane compared with the guarantees that the LIV Golf Series, the Saudi Arabia-funded start-up, is paying, but it is still a lot of money.
The tour has responded to LIV in two ways: suspending players who have taken the Saudi petrodollars and run, and upping its payouts to stunning levels. This year there will be a Player Impact Program fund of $50 million that will be split among 10 players for — wait for it — being popular on social media.
Additionally, prize money is going up across the board. The Players Championship’s purse will be $25 million next year thanks to new tour television contracts.
But as with LIV, all that money can’t make tournaments bigger than they are or as big as promoters want them to be. LIV is a bunch of 54-hole exhibitions played for Monopoly money. The PGA Tour’s playoff events are more legitimate — 72-hole events that golfers have to earn their way into.
What’s more, the individual tournaments can be as riveting as any non-major. Last year’s playoff at Caves Valley between Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau — won on the sixth hole by Cantlay — was wonderful theater. Ditto for Sunday’s tournament, won on the third playoff hole by Will Zalatoris.
In many ways, the playoffs have done what Finchem hoped they would: kept the top guys playing and fans interested in watching after the majors are over. That didn’t used to be the case. Players were interested in the silly season only when they got money up front.
The playoffs changed that. And yet that wasn’t enough for the tour, which insists that its TV partners act as if a major championship always is being decided, especially in the Players, when in truth only lots and lots of money is at stake.
FedEx has spent a lot of money since 2007 on the playoffs and on the tour. Corporate sponsorship is at the heart of everything the tour does. Washington — the nation’s capital — doesn’t have a yearly tour event. Why? Because there’s no corporate sponsor willing to fund a tournament here.
The tour has changed playoff systems more often than most people change their socks. When Vijay Singh clinched victory in the FedEx Cup the week before the Tour Championship in Year 2, the tour changed the system. When Bill Haas walked onto the victory platform after he won the Tour Championship in 2011 and asked Finchem, “Who won the FedEx Cup?” and Finchem sheepishly answered, “You did,” it was time for another change.
Three years ago, the Tour adopted what is essentially a member-guest format. The points leader starts the Tour Championship at 10 under par, and everyone else starts behind him, down to 30th place.
Last year, Cantlay started at 10 under and shot a 269 for the week in Atlanta. Three players played better than he did, but Cantlay’s head start made him the winner. This is a little like a team winning the Super Bowl despite being outscored because it started with a 14-0 lead.
How do you fix all this? First, give the majors the emphasis they deserve. An easy fix, but the tour is loath to do it.
Another easy fix: If you want to call them playoffs, make them real playoffs. After the regular season ends, start everyone at zero. Next year, only 70 players will make the playoffs with 50 advancing to the second tournament and 30 to the Tour Championship. The tour — and the TV networks — live in fear that a star won’t make it to Atlanta. Rory McIlroy missed the cut this past week in Memphis. NBC doesn’t want him absent the next two weeks.
The only player who really drives ratings is Tiger Woods, and his days of making the playoffs are over. So make it a real competition with everyone subject to elimination.
History still won’t be made, but at least we will get a real champion when all is said and done. It has been 16 years. Time to fix this once and for all.