The money-making formula for the PGA Tour has grown depressingly simple: Make sure Tiger Woods is on TV. If possible, make sure Tiger plays head to head with Phil Mickelson, or maybe Vijay Singh, in late-scheduled pairings on as many days of the golf week (Thursday through Sunday) as possible.
This past week just concluded the introductory playing of the Fedex Cup Playoffs in professional golf. The ostensible idea: To hype up the excitement of the PGA Tour season with an extended playoff series like baseball or basketball. You know. Those sports where the playoffs are the only games anybody watches.
Golf has this one problem, though. You can’t make players show up for tournaments, whether designated as playoffs or not. And the more successful players tend to be those who don’t show up. They make a schedule for themselves early in the year — so much play, so much practice, so much rest, so much time for business commitments — and they stick to it.
SO YOU THROW MORE MONEY AT THE PLAYERS. You enlist a sponsor who will put up millions of dollars, including a $10 million first prize for the overall playoff. Each tournament in a series of four, on four consecutive weeks, has a $7 million purse. That makes each tournament’s first prize about $1.25 million, as much as any of golf’s four traditional major tournaments, the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship.
But no, that’s not good enough. Tiger might still show up for only two of the tournaments. For one thing, the four Fedex events have been jammed into consecutive weeks immediately following two of the biggest tournaments in golf: the PGA and the WGC Bridgestone Championship (formerly known as the World Series of Golf). Tiger never plays six weeks in a row. Tiger hardly ever plays three or four weeks in a row.
So you stack the deck. Throughout the year, you award “Fedex Cup points” for top ten finishes in regular PGA tournaments, practically ensuring that Tiger Woods (who’s better than anybody else) will lead “the Fedex Cup race” by the end of that year. Then you seed players for the last four tournaments, with Tiger being awarded 100,000 Fedex cup points in the “re-set” for the playoff series. Everybody else, being mere mortals, gets commensurately fewer points at the start.
That makes Tiger almost impossible to catch from the get-go.
AND YAY, HOORAY, WHAT DO YOU GET? Because you pair players according to their Fedex Cup rankings, Tiger, Vijay, and Phil play lead groups all four days for all four tournaments. Big TV ratings, big ad dollars, big hype.
Only one problem. Tiger took one look at the seeding and decided he needed (and could afford) a week of rest after winning the WGC and the PGA in blistering Tulsa heat. Phil Mickelson had always intended to skip the third tournament, and he did. Steve Stricker won the first event, the Barclay’s, at Westchester Country Club, in what turned out to be the most compelling competition of the month as he faced down a red-hot K. J. Choi on a fierce and beautiful historic golf course.
You’d have to call the rest of the series a letdown. Vijay Singh decided to tinker with his swing and played badly, finishing cut-64th-65th and still made it into the 30-man field for the final Tour Championship (the seeding again). Charismatic Rich Beem made a glorious early run, but finally couldn’t overcome his low seeding. Tiger and Phil had a final-nine shootout the last day of the second tournament, in Boston, which Phil won. Mickelson then disappeared, playing poorly the rest of the way. Grizzled vet Mark Calcavecchia hung in at dead last through the first two tournaments and played his way into the final group the last day of the last tournament with Tiger, and then faded. Zach Johnson shot a sparkling 60 on the Saturday of the Tour Championship.
But of course Tiger won, and by a lot, and what did you expect? The PGA Tour had set it up that way, and I think the whole golfing establishment ought to be more than a little ashamed.
THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF TALK ABOUT “TWEAKING” the Fedex Cup to make it better. Several players have griped that you ought to lose points for failing to play a tournament in the series. A number of commentators have said that the first tournament included too many players, at 144 — the tour has only 125 fully exempt players. Phil Mickelson, who likes his cash, has complained that the $10 million deferred comp Fedex Cup first prize (it, and the other top ten Cup prize money, is paid into the PGA Tour retirement accounts of the individual players) ought to be paid on the spot.
But the worst problem is the seeding itself. Look, the New York Yankees don’t get to win fewer games in the season-ending playoffs than any other team, just because they pull the biggest TV audiences. Golf, which has always prided itself on its red-in-tooth-and-claw Darwinism — you win or you’re gone — has given up its essence by seeding high-ranked players so they can’t be beat.
So drop the seeding system. Start the series with 90 players. Go to 70 for the second tournament, 50 for the third, then 30 for the finals. Miss a tournament, you’re out.
But there’s a dirty little secret in top-ranked golf. It’s out in plain sight. If Tiger doesn’t play, revenues go down. And Tiger might not go for that arrangement. He might skip the whole thing.
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