- John Hawkins
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As college football prepares to crown another national champion amid pleas that it finally adopt a playoff system, the PGA Tour did just that and still hasn't gotten much love. Too complicated. Too many postseason qualifiers. Not enough reward for those who excel during the regular season. Imagine the reaction if the tour had come up with a system everyone liked. Would Sgt. Pernice and the Soapbox Police work up a lather in times of such hypothetical harmony?
Let us also consider the possibility that the tour did get it right, critics be scammed. At the very least, we should accept the FedEx Cup and its four-tournament playoff series as a substantial upgrade from the previous competitive format. Instead of using a money list as the primary measure of performance, players will accumulate points on a weekly basis, with the top 144 advancing to what serves as the game's first authentic attempt to identify a season-long champ.
If the field seems oversized, the tour's motives have been prioritized. "You almost have to look at our playoff as one giant tournament," said Davis Love III.
Remember the Fall Finish? Didn't think so. One could see professional golf sliding toward the same unsavory scenario as pro tennis with its old scheduling structure: Four major championships, three of them held during the warm-weather months, followed by a string of meaningless events to cap a season far too long and devoid of a crescendo. Every autumn story line involved money, a tacky hook best left for game shows and people who work for a living.
"If the NFL played 40 weeks a year, people would get sick of that, too," reasons U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy, a transplanted Australian whose view of American football might be affected by the fact he lives in Arizona.
Speaking of cardinal sins, let's not get carried away in comparing the '07 tour to its ancestors -- anyone from Bart to Anita Bryant can see that it's apples and lemons. "If you're not going forward, you're going backward," said commissioner Tim Finchem, whose aversion to neutrality, with all due respect to his favorite courier, didn't exactly arrive overnight. On the eve of 2007, the tour's goal is clearly defined: to reclaim the momentum it took into this century, when rising TV ratings made it easy to do business with the networks, which generated huge increases in prize money without scaring off title sponsors, whose commitments come with fiscal obligations at every corner of the cash-flow triangle.
The tour isn't about to admit it anytime soon, but the TV deal it completed last winter was full of compromise and concession. Three valuable partners (ABC, ESPN, USA) didn't return, which cleared a wide path for the Golf Channel, whose interest necessitated a long-term agreement and, in effect, hid some of the tour's financial scarring. This concludes our history lesson. It also goes a long way toward explaining the birth of a revamped, condensed, bottom-heavy schedule.
Basically, the FedEx Cup was the bait on Finchem's hook when he went casting for a new television contract in late 2005. Tiger Woods and a bag full of minnows weren't going to catch many fish. The commissioner needed to revise the competitive program to entice the networks and keep the tour's business from heading south. Despite the obvious commercial connotations, however, the FedEx Cup isn't a concept that requires an enormous amount of ideological justification.
If the old season had become outdated, this was an idea whose time had come, although you probably could have said that a decade ago. "We've talked about it since the second year I was here," said vice president Ken Lovell, who joined the PGA Tour in January 2000. "There was a lot of post-5-o'clock conversation regarding that actual theme. If you could do anything to produce the most exciting golf product, what would it be?"
We've got an answer. The New Tour is a three-year collaboration of ideas from Finchem and his vast roster of VPs. Under the direction of chief marketing officer Tom Wade, Lovell was responsible for creating a mathematical formula that would reward but not discriminate -- numerical values reflective of the difference between balance and fairness. A ton of guys will enter the playoffs with a chance to win the whole shooting match, but 80 to 90 percent of them will be armed with butter knives.
"There isn't going to be a high incidence of the 74th seed becoming the overall champion," said tour senior VP Bob Combs. "It might happen once in a lifetime, and it will be a great story if it does."
"There is an edge [similar to] a home-field advantage in team sports. If the New York Yankees win 115 games, 20 more than any other team, they will start over. That's what playoffs are all about."
-- PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem
Still, it's golf, a game with a higher random variable than any sport. Home of the bad hop, unforeseen flop and Ben Curtis. "The unknown is a scary thing," admitted Lovell. "This is the best we can do without actually playing it. I guarantee you something crazy will happen the first year. There will always be flukes, but the system needs to be credible and it has to be exciting for the fans. It can be hard to accomplish those two things at the same time."
Changes as sweeping as those applied by the FedEx Cup were sure to be met with dissent, especially in a game so cognizant of its roots. When the majority of your middle class straddles $1 million in annual earnings, a man doesn't put on a different color of socks without thinking long and hard about it. In general, player reaction has been cautiously upbeat. Never has the wait-and-see viewpoint gotten more airtime.
For every Tom Pernice Jr. -- who blithely assailed Finchem and ranted about a lack of player input on FedEx details at last month's Tour Championship -- there are dozens of tour pros with questions of all shapes and sizes. Most have nothing to do with the playoff, per se; they instead concern the points-distribution process in the 7½ months leading into the postseason or the heavy stretch of can't-miss tournaments from the British Open (mid-July) to the Tour Championship (mid-September).
Without further adieu, let the hand-wringing begin. "Nine tournaments in 11 weeks is a lot of golf," said Ernie Els, whose stretch of six consecutive weeks of tournament golf in 2004 ended with a final-round 80 at the U.S. Open -- he had begun the day two strokes off the lead. "I'm committed to this, but until you get into a stretch like that, it's difficult to know how you'll feel."
Jim Furyk might be the tour's biggest advocate among top-tier players, but he isn't bashful about voicing his thoughts on what he considers FedEx faults. "The devaluing of the major championships is a real sore spot with me," Furyk said of a formula that awards 25,000 points to regular tour events, 26,250 for WGC tournaments, and 27,500 at majors and the Players. "Why wouldn't a major be worth 37,500? They should come with a lot more than a 10-percent increase."
You may not like the tour's response, but it has one: Golf's four biggest tournaments already carry immense cachet and value. In determining its annual winner, the tour felt that inflating point totals at the majors would have too much impact on the standings and thus, undermine its own purpose. "You can easily argue that winning a major comes with enough perks already," Ogilvy said. "Should I have gotten even more than I've gotten for winning the U.S. Open?"
This is probably an excellent time to address one of the media's saucier gripes -- that the FedEx Cup is nothing more than a jealous attempt to divert attention from the majors. The tour can't stand the fact it holds no jurisdiction over the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA, or so the thinking goes. However true that theory may be, it doesn't discredit the need for a season-long points race and playoff series. The '07 format makes more sense than the '06 format. One needn't go any deeper than that.
Still, we owe somebody from Ponte Vedra Beach the microphone. "We've been clear from the beginning that this isn't about out-majoring the majors," Combs said. "They are unique and special and historic within the culture of our game. Nothing can or is intended to alter that fact." In a perfect world, the FedEx Cup would be thought of as one colossal tournament -- Love's early assessment fully expanded -- that builds to a heated, sensible climax in the final month. "This is a 37-week competition," said George Burger, who joined the tour 14 months ago after a 25-year career in Washington as a political corporate campaign manager and consultant. "We want this to become a significant measure of the best players of all time."
As Finchem's VP of special projects, one of Burger's tasks is to resolve marketing and branding issues between FedEx -- which invested a hefty percentage of its advertising budget to spray its logo all over every tour event -- and the tour's existing title sponsors. Unlike a lot of folks with a history on Capitol Hill, Burger is unpretentious and ultrareasonable. His presence, along with that of former LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw, personifies the growing notion that a man doesn't need to keep a framed portrait of Deane Beman on his nightstand to work for Camp Ponte Vedra.
This is a less arrogant, more responsive PGA Tour. It has accepted the responsibility of knowing there will be criticism of its new format -- some of it scattershot, some of it valid. It has taken a proactive role in educating the media on the FedEx Cup, and while there's an obvious promotional value in those relations, it's still positive communication. Most significantly, the tour has gone out of its way to stress a willingness to make changes to the FedEx format, be they on the fly or after 19 gatherings of a subcommittee.
What's more, the players are being heard. Less than two weeks after Pernice sounded off on the silliness of having 144 guys compete in three postseason events, the tour policy board voted to cut the field to 120 after the New York event, 70 after Boston and 30 after Chicago. Such a reduction legitimizes the "playoff" theme and makes it easier for the public to understand what's going on. It also means Pernice is likely to remain quiet through the holidays.
Once the 30 finalists convene at East Lake, there are format-related issues that could create an awkward scene Sunday afternoon. The Tour Championship is the highest-valued tournament of the season in terms of points per man, but it's very possible the annual FedEx Cup champion won't be the same guy who wins the event. Won't that seem a little weird? Is NBC, which will televise the last three playoff gatherings, capable of providing the competitive context necessary to tell its audience that Woods, who finished his round 90 minutes ago, just clinched the FedEx Cup because Trevor Immelman missed a four-footer at the 15th, meaning Tiger can finish no worse than a tie for seventh at East Lake? We're talking about a network that lost Phil Mickelson in the trees on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open.
The unknown is a scary thing, especially when it's five or six million viewers who are clueless. "The commissioner has said on several occasions that we may have to revisit some things," Burger said. "I look at this as various constituencies trying to make it as good as we can before we get started."
Finchem is by nature a rigid man, but at a FedEx briefing in November, he addressed concerns about the format in language that didn't require six trips to the dictionary. He even whipped out a nifty analogy to explain the thinking behind the postseason "reshuffle" -- every player is given a fixed point total based on regular-season performance heading into the playoffs. At first glance, the difference between the No. 1 seed (100,000 points) and No. 30 (93,250) seems incredulously small. Even if No. 1 finishes 10th in New York, No. 30 jumps ahead of him with a victory.
The commissioner can feel your bewilderment. "If a player performs at an exceedingly high level during the regular season and basically has to start over, is that fair?" Finchem said. "Actually, they're not starting over -- there is an edge [similar to] a home-field advantage in team sports. If the New York Yankees win 115 games, 20 more than any other team, they will start over. That's what playoffs are all about."
Lovell admitted the FedEx formula doesn't make a terrific first impression. "On the surface, it looks like it has problems," he said. "The more you look at it, the more you realize there is no math issue." Dozens of single-season projection models prove that anyone outside the top 30 heading into the playoffs has an infinitesimal chance of winning the grand prize. The odds that a FedEx champ will come from outside the top 15 are extremely slim, and as long as Tiger Woods is around, those odds aren't going to gain much weight.
This format will showcase the game's best players, and the regular season definitely matters. "We didn't want someone who finishes 20th in 20 tournaments to win this thing," Lovell adds. "People say, 'You mean to tell me a guy who finishes 69th during the regular season can win it all?' The answer is yes, but everyone ahead of him has to miss a bunch of [postseason] cuts."
One of the final pieces to the FedEx puzzle was the method of postseason payment. Players obviously will continue to collect checks for every cut made during the regular season and in the playoffs. It took the better part of a year, however, for the tour to decide how to distribute the $35 million in annual FedEx Cup prize money, which basically amounts to a bonus pool. Cash? Retirement credit? A combination of the two?
The matter snowballed into a conflict at a players' meeting in October when Brett Quigley, unhappy with the direction of the discussion, left the room. "I don't want to say you don't have a choice, but you don't have a choice," said Quigley, who prefers not to wait 30 years for compensation. "What about if you wake up one day and decide to walk away from the game? What about if you're building a house? If you want to give some money to your church?"
After months of FedEx-related rulings that almost pandered to the tour's middle class, the rank and file were defeated. Payments will be fully deferred. "Every financial analyst in the country would tell you we'd be crazy not to do it that way," Furyk said. "This is only in our best interests."
What couldn't wait was a renovation to the competitive situation. Player input was solicited and a lot of interesting suggestions were heard. At the 84 Lumber Classic in 2005, Phil Mickelson proposed that 18 existing events be designated as "mandatory," with points awarded Grand Prix-style. By then, however, Finchem and his fleet of VPs had committed to moving three major-market events to the end of the summer (Boston's Deutsche Bank Championship already resides on Labor Day weekend).
For 33 weeks from January to mid-August, players will continue to make a splendid living while positioning themselves for a showdown that would turn November's question mark into September's exclamation point. It's not an original concept, and it may not succeed in achieving its most crucial purposes, but it is a new beginning with a very different end.
So sit back and enjoy the ride, even if no one knows where we're going. As Carl Spackler said in "Caddyshack," the heavy stuff won't be coming down for a while. "We've got a lot of people we need to make happy with this," Lovell said. "We want to give the media something to write about. The players obviously have to be happy. Our sponsors, people who go to our tournaments and the ones who watch on TV Everyone has an opinion. It doesn't take long to realize you can't make everyone happy."
You can try, however. On the eve of the 2007 season, that qualifies as news.
John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine
Tim Finchem takes dead aim at the PGA Tour's status quo. Soon we'll see if he succeeds, writes John Hawkins.