The Four FedEx Cup Playoff Events
Golf fans everywhere are scrambling to remember just how The FedEx Cup Playoffs work. I admit, the formula is a bit complicated but just what exactly are the top 125 golfers on the PGA Tour playing for at the end of September. You need to know that FedEx Cup points are distributed throughout the season. The winner of each tournament throughout the season usually gets around 500-600 points while second place usually takes 300, third gets 190 and so on down the list -- everyone who makes the cut getting at least one point.
At the end of the year the top 125 points earners are ranked and earn a spot in the field at the first of four Playoff events. Total points from the regular season carry over to the first three Playoff events but the point distributions for winning these events are higher than in the regular season. For example, the winner will receive 2,500 points.
After the first of four Playoff events the standings will be recalculated and the top 100 guys will make the second. The bottom 25 will be lopped off and will not compete. The same rules apply for this tournament except that when the standings are recalculated here only 70 golfers move on to the third Playoff event.
From the third Playoff event the top 30 go to the Tour Championship at the end of September. When we get to the Tour Championship the point totals will be reset to give everyone a somewhat viable chance at the title and $10 million prize. Whoever is in first at that point will be reset to 2,500 points no matter how many points they have, second place will assume a total of 1,500 points and so on. Point distribution is the same at the Tour Championship (2,500 to the winner) as the other three Playoff tournaments.
So if you're in first going to the Tour Championship you don't necessarily have to win that tournament to win the overall FedEx Cup. In 2008 Camilo Villegas won the the first of four Playoff events and the Tour Championship but Vijay Singh won the FedEx Cup. In 2009 Phil Mickelson won the Tour Championship but Tiger Woods took home the FedEx Cup. It's a bit complex, yes, but that year-end Tour Championship with, presumably, the 30 best golfers on the PGA Tour is quite the event.
Off-the-course talk has often threatened to overshadow the proceedings. Players have grumbled about the bonus payout, the number of events they've been asked to play, and their input (or lack thereof) regarding the whole thing. But not everything is an easy fix.
If there are "playoffs," why is it that not everyone has played? In fact, the No. 1 player in the points standings skipped tournaments. The four events have a scenario in which some could be playing seven out of nine weeks. Several ideas have been presented, such as reducing from four to three the number of playoff events or having a week off in the middle of the four. "Currently our agreements are for this schedule next year, sponsorship, television and the rest," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. "I think that unraveling contracts is not something we normally do on the PGA Tour."
Several players have expressed concerns about the FedEx Cup bonus not paid in cash. There is a $35 million bonus pool with $10 million going to the winner in the form of deferred compensation to be placed in players' retirement accounts. This system will create a lot of cash for players down the road. It has erroneously been reported that the payout is in the form of an annuity. It is not an annuity. Sometime after the Tour Championship, the winner of the FedEx Cup will have $10 million placed in his tour-based retirement account. That's tax free. And the money can be invested in as many as 15 different options.
Players cannot touch the money, of course, until the age of 45 or when they stop playing the tour, whichever comes later. They must start taking payments by age 60. But if you do the math, you can see just how lucrative the plan can be. To a guy who is making some $80 million per year, that's probably not a big deal. All of this overshadows the fact that each of the four FedEx Cup playoff events has a purse of $7 million, with more than $1.2 million going to the winner. And two of the tournaments have no cuts and short fields, meaning a big payday even for last place.
In addition to being surprised about the payout, many players have said they were unaware of how the points worked, that they didn't realize some of the events would not have full fields, and were stunned to see how many events would be crammed into a jam-packed schedule. Finchem and player board rep Stewart Cink both pointed out that the FedEx Cup concept was officially unveiled in June of 2006. Several months of tweaking took place. The payout was debated. Player meetings were held. "Everybody was given an opportunity," Cink said. "We had player meetings, and we had abysmal attendance. That's our forum. If you can't take the time to come to the player meetings and voice your opinion, then how else are we supposed to get it?" Mickelson suggested he voiced various concerns about the FedEx Cup and they were not addressed. Did other players speak up? Or were they not paying attention?
There is no doubt that the four straight tournaments that make up the FedEx Cup playoffs are too many. And yet, players had called for a shorter season. They didn't like the fact that the PGA Tour schedule droned on into November. "I think for us to compete against football, and for us to continue our season after the PGA Championship as long as it does, I just think it kind of loses its luster," Mickelson said in 2005. "It's just not exciting. I'd love to see a lot less tournaments on tour, so the top players play in a greater percentage of those events." And yet, isn't that what we have with the current format?
I have a confession to make. I have never watched a single hole of the FedEx Cup. I can tell you that it’s the PGA Tour’s playoff. Now, I support golf whenever the sport shows any progressive tendencies. The playoff was and remains a great idea on paper. But in practice it all feels a little forced if not invented. When the last putt falls at the Tour Championship the story will be about who will receive the $10 million prize more than who won the season long event.
A few things hurt the FedEx Cup, one of which the PGA can control, the other it can’t. The latter of the two hindrances is the timing. Golf’s climactic event falls in the middle of pennant fever in baseball and the early seasons of both college and professional football. Good luck drawing in the casual audience. The PGA does have control of the structure of the competition though. The year long system, which rewards players for wins, cuts made, and high finishes during the season, makes sense in that the Tour wants its best players playing for the biggest financial prize.
Once we get into “playoff” season, however, the process becomes a bit convoluted. The top 125 players in the FedEx standings qualify for the four tournament finale. Each winner of the initial stages will be rewarded 2,500 points as opposed to the regular season prize of around 500 points. After each event, the standings will be recalculated and the lowest players will be removed from the race accordingly. A final thirty duke it out for the hefty check.
The idea (or hope) is that the thirty best golfers will be left to compete for the Tour Championship and, it can’t be stated enough, that money. Again, in theory this creates some intrigue. But the whole system leaves the door open for a player to go winless throughout the four tournaments and still collect the payday. To ostensibly give every one a chance to win, the leader will be set at 2,500, second place at 1,500, and so on and so forth. Here’s a tylenol. It’s therefore not inconceivable to think that a player with zero playoffs wins will be crowned champion.
At this point you’re likely asking “Do you have a better idea?” to which I answer “probably.” The PGA Tour effectively starts its season with a matchplay tournament. Why not determine a champion with one? The first three tournaments of the playoffs can stay as quasi-qualifiers. But instead of thirty emerging for the Tour Championship, the top thirty-two will advance. The players will be seeded 1-8 based on standings with the top four overall receiving number 1 seeds. This leaves endless possibilities for Sunday showdowns.
Matchplay golf succeeds because it brings emotion out of our most stoic athletes. Gamesmanship enters into the equation. You might give an opponent a two foot putt any other weekend of the year, but with ten million bones on the line he better sink it. Walter Hagen built his career on matchplay. In fact, all six of his PGA Championships were won under the matchplay format. And then there’s Hagen’s 12 and 11 victory over Bobby Jones in the planned 72 hole “Match of the Century.” A matchplay championship would revive interest in “The Haig,” which is regrettably lacking in the modern game.
Seve Ballesteros, the swashbuckling Spaniard, made his name by stupefying Americans in Ryder Cups with shots no one had ever seen before. His gamesmanship is held in reverence to this day. The spirit of Seve and Hagen is the spirit of personality. Matchplay allows those personalities to take root. Eventually legacies form. Right now the FedEx Cup needs a jolt of excitement. It’s still all about the money. Most sports fans probably think it’s one of college football’s 456 bowls instead of Golf’s postseason event. We need this matchplay. I want this matchplay. How many of you do too?
With the PGA Tour regular season over, now comes a four-tournament sprint known as the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs. So it seems like a reasonable time to look at the playoffs and ask the question that seems to be asked each year: do the playoffs on the PGA Tour really work? In other words, after a season of major wins and World Golf Championships and regular tour events, do the playoffs do a good enough job of rewarding the golfers who have played well while eliminating those who have been average or even marginal?
Consider that the FedEx Cup playoffs begin with a field of the top 125 players from the FedEx Cup points race. That's a smaller field than a regular tour event. From there, the field will be trimmed to 90 for the second event, 70 for the third event and 30 for the final event, the Tour Championship. When that tournament begins, maybe seven or eight players will have a mathematical chance of winning the FedEx title.
It's not like in football or baseball, where a team needs at least a winning record to make the playoffs (yes, some 8-8 and even 7-9 teams have made the NFL playoffs, but that's a small percentage). And while the FedEx Cup playoffs can't be just for winning players, does it need to be for 125 players? Some have suggested that the FexEx Cup playoffs might do better by going to a smaller initial field and carrying over results from event to event, much like the four-event Web.com Tour finals. In reality, though, a smaller field to start would be a tough sell.
The history of the playoffs suggests that those just edging into the first playoff event don't stick around for long. So the playoffs are imperfect for sure, but all playoffs are kind of imperfect. And the PGA Tour has done well in tweaking the playoffs to make the four events as good as possible.
The FedEx Cup will never have the appeal of the four majors. When the FedEx Cup began in 2007, it was met with mixed reaction. Some viewed it as a money grab for already well-paid sportsmen. The final prize has been $10 million since the beginning. A season-long points race, culminating in a playoff environment seemed like a good idea. It followed the same basic formula as the other four major sports in the US: play well during the season, prove yourself in the playoffs, become a champion.
And it seemed like a good idea. In theory. The problem with the FedEx Cup, in practice, was the format. The points system was so convoluted and complex that average fans needed a calculator and math degree to figure it out. And even if you could figure it out, sometimes it didn't even matter. As the FedEx Cup continued, the PGA Tour made more changes and tweaks, on what seemed like an annual basis. Most of the alterations came with the points system and qualification process. The most notable change was a point reset in 2008, partially in response to the way Tiger won the inaugural FedEx Cup. At the start of the 2008 playoffs, points were reset at the first event. In each subsequent event, better players moved on and players that finished toward the bottom of a tournament were eliminated. It was a great change and, more importantly, a more logical playoff system.
In 2014, after seven FedEx Cup playoffs, we are at an interesting crossroads for the event. While the rules and qualification criteria may be settled (for now), casual golf fans can probably recognize the fact that the FedEx Cup crowns a playoff champion, but will they tune in to watch a new generation of golfers try to capture the FedEx Cup? Has the FedEx Cup reached a point that it can attract casual sports fans in the way the major championships do? The fact is that casual interest in golf has not been high. The U.S. Open landed ghastly TV ratings, and so did the Masters, which is always the highest-rated golf broadcast of the year.
In the past, where the PGA Tour season, for all intents, would have ended. Golf would become an afterthought until the Masters. With a crowded fall schedule of sports, it's only logical to move on from golf with no major championships left on the docket. While it will never come close to competing on a crowded NFL Sunday, the opportunity still exists to attract more golf fans with an exciting playoff format.
But since the beginning, the FedEx Cup has aimed to be an another month of noteworthy golf, trying to compete with the fall sports schedule. And while it will never come close to competing on a crowded NFL Sunday, the opportunity still exists to attract more golf fans with an exciting playoff format. With the young talent on the PGA Tour being in top form, there is hope that the PGA Tour can attract new fans during a time of the year that was generally devoid of golf coverage.
The FedEx Cup may be far from perfect. The points system is still confusing at times and casual fans might not understand it completely, but the ubiquity of the season-long race and this four-week stretch have pushed the Cup into becoming the most important event on the PGA Tour. If it generates more interest in the game and legitimately crowns the best golfer of the PGA Tour season, the FedEx Cup will flourish.
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