While better than alternative, PGA Tour playoffs still suffer from identity crisis

Originally Published: August 18, 2008
ESPN.com

This week, the PGA Tour's second season of playoffs begins at The Barclays. With $10 million on the line to the winner, there's plenty at stake for the world's best players.

So who will cash that enormous check this year since Tiger Woods won't be back to defend his title? And will this year's version of the FedEx Cup playoffs yield more movement in the standings from week to week? ESPN.com golf writers Jason Sobel and Bob Harig discuss the possibilities in their weekly e-mail chat, Alternate Shot.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

One year ago, the inaugural FedEx Cup playoffs perhaps made bigger news for what they weren't than what they were. Fans complained that the format would never overtake the majors in terms of importance; It was never supposed to, though. Players complained that the $10 million grand prize wasn't doled out in cold, hard cash; that's been changed for Playoffs 2.0.

Seemingly everyone complained that a player could skip one round of the playoffs and still win the overall title; that can still happen, but with increased volatility, it won't come as easy. Fact is, after snoozing through Carl Pettersson's win in Greensboro, I'm pumped for four weeks in which the best players are competing against each other. Hey, it beats the alternative.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

And that alone makes it worthwhile. The FedEx Cup leaves a lot to be desired, don't get me wrong. There is virtually no buzz about it during the "regular season'' because too many players qualify. It is really not a playoff system, but more of a season-long competition.

But despite its flaws, it does offer a meaningful conclusion to a long, long season. History proved that golf events at this time were doomed otherwise.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

I think the biggest problem for the PGA Tour is that it has struggled to sort of give the playoffs an identity, from the standpoint of which players it wants to reward.

Last year, Tiger Woods was the No. 1 seed entering the postseason, won two events and clinched the Cup even though he skipped The Barclays. It was sort of a combination of rewarding him for both a strong regular season and solid playoffs.

More points will be available in this year's edition of the playoffs, meaning players can move up and down easier, but the format still falls short of a true playoff system, much like the LPGA's ADT Championship, in which the winner on Sunday takes the prize, no matter how she fared in prior events.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

And therein lies the conflict. Is this a season-long prize or one that rewards those who make it through the playoff events?

You know why it's set up this way: the fear of losing the top players. If you made the playoffs more of an all-or-nothing affair, there is a chance some of the big names get beat. But by doing it the way they are doing it, the regular season is not very meaningful.

Sure, the top guys have a big advantage and there is incentive for them to get to the top. But they have not reached that position because the FedEx Cup is on their mind.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

I'll never forget after Round 1 of last year's Mercedes-Benz Championship at Kapalua -- the very first round in this so-called "New Era in Golf" -- when Vijay Singh was asked about the format and said, "I'm not worried about the FedEx Cup. It's a great thing for us to think of when the time comes to think about it. ... If you play well, you don't have to worry about the FedExCup. That's the bottom line."

And I think many of Singh's peers feel exactly the same way. It's a great deal for them when the time comes, but they're not going to spend a lot of free time thinking about it, either.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

Why would they? If you do anything throughout the course of the season, you're in. If you win a tournament or two, you're almost assured of getting to the Tour Championship. And if you can do anything during the playoffs, you're in line for the $10 million … or the $3-million that goes to second all the way down the line.

Really, this is just a big money grab for these guys. But it is still better than the old days when tournaments at this time of year were all but meaningless.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

Right -- and that's the point I was trying to make off the top. You can take PGA Tour officials to task for how they've set up the FedEx Cup, but not for the overall implementation of the system.

This year's playoffs will start with the Barclays, then follow with the Deutsche Bank Championship and BMW Championship before a bye week, then the Ryder Cup and, finally, the Tour Championship.

And I'll say this much about the eventual champion: Though the Tour Championship winner alone shouldn't be able to cash the $10 million, it will be pretty strange to crown a separate tournament winner and FedEx winner on the same day. I'm just not sure there's an easy way to avoid it. If a guy squeaks into the top 30, then wins at East Lake, should he be considered FedEx champ? I honestly don't know.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

Tiger Woods made it easy for them last year. He won the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup. But that is not always going to happen. What if the winner of the FedEx cup is finishing 10th at the Tour Championship, several groups before the winner of the tournament?

Then you've got a bit of an awkward situation. I understand why they are doing it this way. But you can also see how much more exiting it would be if the winner of the Tour Championship was the winner of the FedEx Cup, too.

FROM: Jason Sobel More

TO: Bob Harig

With all that in mind, predicting a FedEx Cup winner right now would be more fruitless than trying to carry a 225-yard hazard with a 9-iron. You've got two courses -- Ridgewood and Bellerive -- at which most players have never played before. TPC Boston always sets up well for the big bombers and East Lake is a ball-striker's paradise.

If I really, really had to pick an overall champ, I'd go with a guy who isn't starting too far back -- in the top 20 or so -- but hasn't peaked yet this year. Golf is a cyclical sport. Guys like Kenny Perry and Stewart Cink have already played their best golf. I'll take someone who has been waiting in the wings. I'll take Geoff Ogilvy.

FROM: Bob Harig More

TO: Jason Sobel

The tour did add more volatility to the mix this year. They've shrunk the difference in points at the reset, and are awarding more points to each player who earns them each week. So, Lee Janzen could be leading the points race if he wins this week -- even though he's starting in last place. But more likely, it'll be someone closer to the top, allowing for one "down'' week.

Remember least year, Tiger skipped an event entirely and still pulled it off, although that will be much harder to do now. If I have to pick one, I'll go with Sergio Garcia -- giving him the two biggest PGA Tour titles of the year.