Commentary

The playoffs system isn't perfect, but it's better than last year

Act II of the PGA Tour playoff season starts this week as the top 144 players compete at the Barclays with the hope of collecting that $10 million bonus check at the end of September. After a few tweaks from Year 1, the FedEx Cup playoffs are better than last year, but still remain a work in progress. ESPN.com's Jason Sobel explains in the Weekly 18.

Originally Published: August 17, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Usually winning alone is enough motivation for PGA Tour pros. The rush of finding the victory circle or the elation of posing for photographs while clutching an oversized check can inspire any elite player into competing at the top of his game.

[+] EnlargeKenny Perry
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesDue to myriad reasons, Kenny Perry only played one competitive round at a major in 2008. But with Tiger Woods out with an injury, Perry will start the FedEx Cup playoffs in first place.
Sometimes, though, other factors can provide motivation. Ryder Cup points, perhaps. Or increased World Ranking status. Or inclusion in certain major championships.

Over the next month, players with little motivation from other sources will receive an infusion of incentive from the one thing that motivates us all: cold, hard cash.

With $10 million available -- more than all but 81 total players have tallied in their entire careers -- FedEx Cup grand prize money will serve as more than simply another fuel payment for the private jet. The Weekly 18 begins with the notion that we should look forward to more movement within the standings than during the first playoff campaign.

1. Will the FedEx deliver?

Tiger Woods won't be back to defend his FedEx Cup title. Phil Mickelson isn't exactly playing the best golf of his career. Heck, the last time we saw No. 1 seed Kenny Perry, well, he may not have seen us, considering a scratched cornea forced him to withdraw from the PGA Championship.

Padraig Harrington? All he does is win majors.

Vijay Singh? Never know what to expect from that flatstick.

Sergio Garcia? Ditto.

Moral of the story: Some dude is going to be $10 million richer in a few weeks ... and there's absolutely no way of telling which player will cash in.

Entering the PGA Tour's second annual playoff season, we should expect the unexpected -- not only for the vulnerability among the game's best players, but for increased volatility within the playoff format this time around. No longer will it be so difficult for those involved to make massive moves toward the top, which should infuse a bit more excitement into the scenario.

According to a PGA Tour memo, "First, we narrowed the gap between players' point totals at the reset going into the playoffs. For example, the gap between first and second was 1,000 points last year; we reduced that to 500 points this year. We made similar reductions all the way down to 144. Second, we added points in all the playoff events. The way we did this was to increase by 2,000 the points awarded to each place receiving points. For example, a third place finish was worth 3,400 points in 2007; it is now worth 5,400 points."

In layman's terms, it's still going to be extremely difficult for a player to leap from No. 144 at the start of the playoffs into the role of champion after the Tour Championship, but it won't be impossible, either. It will also be easier for a player in, say, 15th place to seriously contend for the grand prize than it was last year. And last but certainly not least -- because this one is important -- expect more players to have a chance at the title entering the final round of the playoffs.

Therein lies an intriguing conundrum: Should the playoffs most reward those players who have consistently fared well throughout the season or the ones who get hot for a four-week period? The new system favors the latter, which tends to make it more of a "playoff" format than its inaugural season; after all, you may have noticed that the NFL didn't hand out the Lombardi Trophy to the New England Patriots last year based solely on their lofty regular-season record. This format follows a similar pretense.

It's bad news for Perry, who will enter the playoffs with less of a lead than Woods did last year, and good news for everyone else who's trying to catch him. Unless one player absolutely tears it up over the first three weeks, we'll see some drama at East Lake Golf Club in the fourth and final event.

Give the PGA Tour credit for believing that this system is still very much a work in progress. While the $10 million grand prize may not be handed to the player who had the best season, there's now a better chance that it will go to the man who enjoyed the best postseason. It may not be a foolproof system, but it's definitely an improvement over Year 1.

2. Movin' on up (and down)

So, how volatile is volatile? The PGA Tour memo continues to break down how some of last year's would-be movers and shakers could fare under the current system:

"Rich Beem, who started as the 134 seed, finished seventh at The Barclays and only moved up to 113th. Under the revised structure, he would have moved up to 68th. Vijay Singh started as the No. 2 seed, but missed the cut at The Barclays. He dropped to sixth, but would have dropped to 23rd under the revised structure. At 23rd, he would be in danger of missing the Tour Championship, especially if he missed another cut. Camilo Villegas started as the 52nd seed and finished 21st at The Barclays, ninth at Deutsche Bank and seventh at BMW, moving up to 28th going into the Tour Championship. Under the new system, he would have been 14th going into the Tour Championship."

With greater impetus to play well and continue moving on, expect more players from further back in the pack to make some severe leaps, buying themselves a few extra weeks of golf after a middling regular season.

3. Five up, five down

With 144 players reaching the playoffs, forgive us if we don't treat the final day of the PGA Tour regular season in the same respect that, say, Major League Baseball is given. Considering there are only 125 players who retain full playing privileges during the year, it means about 115 percent of those on tour reach the playoffs -- akin to not only letting every MLB team into the postseason, but the Toledo Mud Hens, Chunichi Dragons and winner of the Little League World Series, too.

Here are the five players who squeezed their way into the first round, at least, this past weekend:

Keep On Going
Player FedEx Cup points place before Wyndham Championship After Wyndham Championship
Rich Beem 166 114
Martin Laird 164 128
J.J. Henry 177 135
Justin Bolli 153 141
Lee Janzen 154 144

Like we said, tough to get excited about any of that.

On the flip side, the five who were knocked out on the final weekend at least included a former major champion:

Heading Home Early
Player FedEx Cup points place before Wyndham Championship After Wyndham Championship
Gavin Coles 138 146
Tag Ridings 140 147
Todd Hamilton 141 148
Brett Rumford 143 149
Marco Dawson 144 150

Also among those who won't be playing in the next four events are Kevin Stadler, Jeff Maggert and -- somewhat surprisingly -- Davis Love III.

4. Greensboro with envy

It doesn't take a golf statistician to crunch the numbers and figure out exactly how Carl Pettersson won the Wyndham Championship on Sunday. The Greensboro, N.C., resident -- he's lived there since age 15 -- led the field in proximity to the hole at Sedgefield CC, hitting the ball to within an average of 23 feet, 5 inches of the cup, including 22 shots inside of 10 feet during the week.

And you can see how that positively affected Pettersson's scoring by checking out his putts per GIR number. Pettersson needed only 1.621 putts for every green he reached, ranking second in the field.

"The course is set up great for me," he said. "You know, obviously my swing was there this week and my putter, but there wasn't really a tee shot I didn't like. You know, usually you have probably about two tee shots on the golf course [that] really doesn't fit your eye and this week I never felt awkward with any tee shots or anything like that."

5. How Swede it is

With names like Ian Poulter and Paul Casey and Darren Clarke and, yes, even Colin Montgomerie being bandied about as captain's picks for Nick Faldo's European team at the Ryder Cup, let's not forget about Pettersson and Daniel Chopra, two natives of Sweden who ply their craft full-time on the PGA Tour.

Pettersson's win in Greensboro wasn't enough to move him into the top five on the world points list -- one of two separate lists used by the European team -- but should make Faldo take notice of the performance.

"I was trying not to think about it, really," Pettersson said. "I'd love to play. Nick, if you're watching, I'm a Size 36 waist and extra-large shirt."

Meanwhile, Chopra couldn't be so bold. After making a rare trip home to compete in the SAS Masters, he was in a share of second place entering the final round, but a Sunday 73 left him at T-8 by the end of the day.

As for Paul Azinger's potential candidates, only two in the final top 25 on the points list finished in the top 10 in Greensboro, with Jerry Kelly and Briny Baird each in a share of ninth place.

6. Stockholm syndrome

Interesting move by D.J. Trahan this past week. When most pros want to take some time off, they simply don't play in a tournament, maybe opting for a vacation instead. Well, Trahan did both, going overseas to compete in the SAS Masters near Stockholm.

"It's been a long, hard year. I would have taken this week off, but I thought I'd get away from all the Ryder Cup mayhem at home and have some fun in Sweden," said Trahan, who finished three spots out of automatically qualifying for the U.S. team. "I think I've made a good stance for my place already but I'm hoping to go back and have two more really good weeks before Paul [Azinger] decides on his four wild cards. There are four or five guys figuring for four spots but I know Paul will pick the four he thinks will do best for the team. He won't have favorites."

[+] EnlargeScott McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesScott McCarron sank this bunker shot on the 18th hole to finish his third round with a birdie.
Trahan shot 73-70 to miss the cut. While it may not improve his Ryder Cup standing, it likely didn't hurt it much, either.

7. Scott's issues

Throughout the final round in Greensboro, Scott McCarron's caddie was without the "N" in his player's name on the back of his bib.

Chalk it up to a case of, "Leave off the last N for … 'Noonan!'"

While McCarron finished solo second for his best result on tour since losing in a playoff to Stuart Appleby in Las Vegas five years ago, he missed a pair of bunnies from inside of 3 feet on holes five and 12 that could have at least made it close on the final holes.

"Second place is obviously tough to swallow right now, but I'll probably be pretty happy here when I realize I've got a job for the rest year," said McCarron, who is currently playing on a Major Medical Extension after elbow surgery in 2006. "I don't have to write tournament directors or sponsors for exemptions and I've got a job for next year."

8. Brandt awareness

As defending champion in Greensboro this week following his first career victory a year ago, Brandt Snedeker enjoyed everything that came with such an honor.

"They postered my face up enough around town where people start recognizing," said Snedeker, who finished T-69 this time around. "See something with my ugly mug on it. People have gotten behind me a little bit and I need it. I need all the help I can get at this point."

Asked what happened when he saw the large billboard adorned with his likeness, Snedeker said, "I was driving. Didn't hit anybody but I definitely swerved. I haven't gone back by it yet but I probably need to get the good vibes going again. ... I definitely rubber-necked a little bit. I didn't really know it was going to be there. They hadn't told me there was going to be a billboard. Actually, my fiancée saw it; she was in the car with me and I almost choked. I started laughing, of course, when I saw it and, you know, just one of those things you never really think about. It was there. I couldn't help but laugh. I thought it was funny-looking but it's a great picture, so I need to get it sent home."

9. St. Paddy's week

Whereas Tiger Woods exudes confidence before, during and after his winning performances, British Open and PGA champ Padraig Harrington is quite the opposite altogether. Consider these comments from Harrington at Oakland Hills throughout last week ...

Before the tournament: "Last week I was a little bit off my game, a little bit tired, but I think coming into this week the game is fine, it's just a question of making sure that I'm ready mentally by Thursday."

After Round 1: "I really couldn't wait to get finished after that, and it showed in my golf. I was anxious to get into the clubhouse at that stage because I just, you know, nothing was really -- I couldn't see anything really happening for me. ... I just need to get a bit more confidence back in my putting and that sort of gets into your game, as well."

After Round 2: "I just [ran] out of steam. It was a struggle for me. I did my best to be ready for the week but clearly I'm not. What can I say? The harder I tried, the worse it got. I haven't got the focus this week. I'm just not with it. Obviously I'm still just having a hangover after winning the Open."

After Round 3: "[I'm] not anywhere near where I could be. But who knows? Last round of a major, you don't know. I keep approaching every shot hopeful it will click into place. ... Still losing my focus at times and I know how I stand and I am not 100 percent. But a couple of things go your way, you don't need to be 100 percent."

After Round 4: "I wasn't happy with how I was swinging the golf club this week in terms of my focus or maybe dehydration or tiredness, but something had me a little bit off my stride this week. My coordination wasn't quite there. So once I got into the weekend and holed a few putts, it really was a question of the adrenaline keeping me going, keeping me focused, keeping me pushing along."

10. Smellin' like Rose?

Ten years ago, Justin Rose finished T-4 in the British Open at Royal Birkdale as an amateur, then turned pro the next day. Last month, in the same tourney at the same venue, Chris Wood finished in a share of fifth place. After his final round, Wood was asked the inevitable question about whether he had any plans to follow in Rose's footsteps by going pro right away.

"Not at the moment, no," he said with a laugh. "I'm having a week off."

Well, that's exactly what Wood did ... and then he turned professional.

Eight days after completing his run at Birkdale, Wood, 20, made like Rose a decade earlier and joined the ranks of the play-for-pay. This past week he cashed his first career paycheck, shooting 70-67-68-72 -- including a front-nine 29 on Saturday -- to finish T-18 at the SAS Masters.

That already gives him a leg up on Rose, who missed the cut in his first 21 events as a professional.

11. Great Scot

Determined not to become one of those U.S. Amateur champions who burns out and fades away, Richie Ramsay won the Vodafone Challenge on Sunday for his first career victory as a member of the Challenge Tour, Europe's version of the Nationwide Tour.

"It's my first win as a professional after years and years of hard work," said the 25-year-old from Scotland, who won the Am in 2006. "I'm just so happy."

Ramsay bogeyed three of the opening five holes in the final round, but rallied to shoot 68, beating George Murray and amateur Stephan Gross Jr. by 1. After failing to register a top-10 result in his first seven appearances of the season, Ramsay now owns five such finishes in his last nine starts.

12. End of the road?

After finishing T-12 in what is believed to be her final LPGA start of the season, this may not signal the beginning of the end for Michelle Wie, but it certainly could be the end of the beginning.

According to the LPGA, a nonmember (such as Wie) can earn status for the next season by winning a tournament (the T-12 was her best finish of the season), finishing in the top five on the Duramed Future Tour money list (she has not competed in an event on that tour) or earning enough money in eligible events to rank in the top 80 at season's end. Currently, she has $62,763 in nonmember earnings, which would rank 114th with 10 events still remaining on the schedule. Here are her LPGA results in 2008:

Maybe Next Year?
Tournament Result Money earned
Fields Open T-72 $2,570
Michelob ULTRA Open at Kingsmill Missed cut $0
Wegmans LPGA T-24 $18,887
U.S. Women's Open Missed cut $0
Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic T-46 $4,831
State Farm Classic Disqualified $0
Canadian Women's Open T-12 $36,475
Total: $62,763

So, what's left for Wie? Only one option: The last way for a nonmember to earn full status for the next season is through the LPGA Qualifying Tournament. Expect Wie to be in the field come December.

13. For whom the bell tolls

On Tuesday, Phil Mickelson will join Barclays PLC president Robert E. Diamond Jr. in ringing the New York Stock Exchange bell prior to the New York-area Barclays event later this week.

Our advice? Sell.

Nothing against Lefty, but check out the recent results of the Dow Jones Industrial Average when fellow golfers rang the bell:

• On May 13, 2008, Lorena Ochoa (along with Anna Rawson and Nicole Castrale) rang the bell. The DJIA was down 39.90.
• On Aug. 28, 2007, Tiger Woods rang the bell. The DJIA was down 276.58.
• On Aug. 17, 2006, Annika Sorenstam rang the bell. The DJIA was up, but only 13.77.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesIf history tells us anything, watch out for the stock market on Tuesday when Phil Mickelson rings the opening bell for the NYSE. When Tiger Woods previously did the honors, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell nearly 300 points.
Plenty of investors are hoping Mickelson doesn't "go low" on Tuesday.

14. Making the leap?

Brendon de Jonge's 4-stroke victory at the Nationwide Tour's Xerox Classic on Sunday was perhaps most notable for the simple fact that de Jonge isn't Colt Knost or Jarrod Lyle.

With eight tournaments left on this year's schedule, Knost and Lyle (who finished solo second at the Xerox) each remain stuck on two wins. One more will mean an in-season promotion to the PGA Tour, following eight others who have done so before them: Chris Smith (1997), Heath Slocum (2001), Chad Campbell (2001), Pat Bates (2001), Patrick Moore (2002), Tom Carter (2003), Jason Gore (2005) and Nick Flanagan (2007).

15. Pair of kings

It isn't often that Arnold Palmer is forced to share his nickname, but he didn't mind when joined by another "King" at the Wyndham Championship, where legendary race car driver Richard Petty celebrated 50th anniversaries with him (Masters appearances for Palmer; first NASCAR race for Petty).

As kings often do when they meet up (or so we're told, at least), Palmer and Petty exchanged gifts in Greensboro, as the golfer presented the driver with one of his favorite putters and received an authentic Charley One Horse cowboy hat in return.

"The hat from Richard is one of the most unique presents I've ever received," Palmer said. "It is his trademark -- as distinct to him as the umbrella is to me. It is extremely special coming from Richard and will find a place of distinction among the personal memorabilia in my office."

"Arnold and I were doing our thing around the same time, through the '60s and '70s, but our paths never crossed much," said Petty. "I always followed his career because he also has strong ties to North Carolina, having played college golf at Wake Forest. I admired the way he carried himself on and off the golf course. ... I'm glad he and I got to spend some time together. He looks good in that Charley One Horse hat."

16. The son also rises

Des Smyth earned $9,620 for his 47th-place finish at the Champions Tour's Jeld-Wen Tradition. Not bad, but mere peanuts in the Smyth household this week. That's because his son, Gregory, banked $13,962,612 after winning the Irish lottery on Wednesday.

"It's all very surreal. Being so far away from things, it's hard to grasp," Smyth, who makes his home in Ireland, said from Sunriver, Ore., site of this week's event. "We got a call in the hotel at 6:20 a.m. this morning. Usually when you get a call that early, it's not good but he assured us right at the start that it was good news he was about to tell us. I played [Thursday] but honestly can't remember a single shot I hit. I was thinking about him all day. He'll be well advised, for sure. I just hope he takes it."

17. Round mound of rebound?

It was announced this week that Charles Barkley will star in an upcoming Golf Channel reality series in which famed instructor Hank Haney tries to fix his golf swing.

Talk about the irresistible force and the immovable object.

What will happen when Tiger Woods' personal coach, who stands among the world's top teachers of the golf swing, collides with Barkley, whose move has been described by Rick Reilly as, "like a man waiting for a rattlesnake to pop up so he can kill it"?

We have no idea -- but we will be watching. Hey, as far as its previous competition goes, it will be more soulful than John Daly plucking guitar strings in a trailer, more congenial than twosomes traversing the country playing golf, more pane-less (painless ... get it?) than a bunch of amateurs punching shots at one another's glass barrier.

One personal note to Haney before they begin, however: Don't make Sir Charles look too good on the course. That would just give the rest of us too much false hope.

18. Quote of the week

"I told my caddie if I made this, I would get in the bunker and do a snow angel. I chickened out."
-- Scott McCarron, after holing a bunker shot to close his third round at the Wyndham Championship on Saturday.

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.