30 for 30: The PGA Tour Finale

Posted by: mike September 18th, 2017

By Gary VanSickle

GWA President & Golf Insiders Contributor

@GaryVanSickle

 

The flagship of the FedEx Cup series and the grand finale of the PGA Tour season has an impressive field of… only 30 players?

Don’t forget to take your irony pills this week because that has always been a major failing of this week’s Tour Championship in Atlanta.

Yes, they’re supposed to be the 30 best players on the tour, notwithstanding the missing-in-action list that includes Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson this week.

Still, 30 players seems like a small golf outing, not a tournament, no matter who they are. So it’s always been odd that the tour’s big finish feels less like a PGA Tour event than any other tournament on the schedule. Get a good winner, though, like McIlroy last year or Jim Furyk or Tiger Woods and people tend not to notice.

Here’s another thing about the FedEx Cup system and really, I promise to spare you my usual rant of the last decade. Nobody follows the points. They are irrelevant. There may be better ways to run this series. I have suggested keeping cumulative scores over the four tournaments but that system, while being easier to understand, has its own faults.FedExCup

These aren’t playoffs. The fields are simply winnowed week by week, based on season-long performances that mean the top players can’t help but make it to Atlanta. (Um, are you listening, Rory and Phil?)

Even in this week’s Tour Championship, it’s not a level playing field. The FedEx Cup points are reset so the players tee it up in a sort of staggered start, engineered so that if any of the top five win the Tour Championship they are guaranteed to win the FedEx Cup also.

Would it be so drastic, since they’re called playoffs, to have at least one week be a real playoff? Why not let the big buildup be about getting to Atlanta and East Lake for the final week, then allow all 30 players to start at zero. No head-starts, no points break, no let’s-steer-the-big-names-toward-the-victory-stand methodology to satisfy TV’s desire for starpower.

Reset everyone’s points to zero, like a real playoff would, and the Tour Championship winner is the FedEx Cup winner. There would be no more split podium potential. This system isn’t perfect, either, but it has the advantage that all 30 players in the field will have the same level of pressure. They’re all playing for that $10 million bonus and every contender over every putt on the back nine Sunday will have to battle that thought in their subconscious. This putt might be worth $10 million… gulp.

That would add a little more fun factor to the finish and a needed helping of meritocracy.

The tour has had the good fortune at East Lake to witness some exciting finishes. Few, if any, can be credited to the convoluted points system. They’ve all been credited to good golf, close finishes and memorable shots. I’d list Bill Haas and his up-and-down from the lake and Jim Furyk’s $10-million putt at 18 for starters.

We’ve gone through ten years of FedEx Cup play and the points system has evolved for the better. You can still hate the FedEx Cup because it’s a crass cash grab. In the tour’s defense, what else does it have to offer the world’s best players? A history of sorts is being quietly built.

You can hate the non-playoff playoffs if you want, and the goofy points system, too, but the FedEx Cup ranks as an unqualified success. The FedEx Cup delivered on the only requirement that mattered—it lured/forced/convinced the game’s best players to show up and play multiple times at the end of the season. If you remember back to life before the FedEx Cup, Tiger Woods and Mickelson practically took turns skipping the Tour Championship. And many players showed up at what was then an event in early November after having barely touched their clubs once the last putt dropped at the PGA Championship in August. The fall schedule then was not pretty. There were stars in the night sky in October but not many in tournament fields.

The old Tour Championship was not a priority. Now it is because for a $10 million bonus, even the tour’s richest multi-millionaires can’t afford to pass it up.

So we’ll go to East Lake this week with the usual expectations. Jordan Spieth is the top-seeded player, no surprise there, and you’ll hear TV’s talking heads repeat the phrase, “he holds his destiny in his own hands if he wins,” for four straight days.

A lot of players can win. Spieth has done it at East Lake before. All we really want, though, is a close finish and a good show. The FedEx Cup has proven that with the best of the best playing, the odds on that are pretty good. Not bad for a 10-year-old.

___________________________________________________________________________________________Gary Van Sickle is a contributor for Golf Insiders and The Morning Read. He has written about golf since 1980, the last 20 years for Sports Illustrated, and for Golf World magazine and The Milwaukee Journal before that.

He played in two U.S. Senior Amateur championships, was once paired with Larry Mize and Tom Purtzer in U.S. Open sectional qualifying, has made seven holes-in-one and is not going to give you strokes. He lives in Pittsburgh.