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The New PGA

Pro golf unveils the FedExCup, a format that will crown a Tour champion with a four-tournament playoff
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

After the first round of the Mercedes-Benz Championship, a tournament that he would eventually win, Vijay Singh slumped in his pressroom chair and looked a little peeved. The questions weren't about his opening round of 69, a fine score in blustery conditions in his first competitive round of 2007, but rather about the FedExCup. • "I just answered that question, didn't I?" said Singh. "I'm not worried about the FedExCup. It's a great thing for us to think about when the time comes to think about it." • The concept of the FedExCup has been in the thoughts of the PGA Tour professionals for more than two years. Now, the reality is here.

At stake is a ton of cash, potentially greater television ratings and even the legacy of Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. For the first time in decades, the Tour is revising its format, abandoning the long (and often dull) march from the first week in January to the Tour Championship Presented by Coca-Cola the first week in November.

Now we have the FedExCup, and doubtless you've heard plenty about it already. Along with earning a wallet-busting paycheck in each tournament, PGA Tour players now earn points toward the FedExCup championship, a series of four "playoff" tournaments that culminates with the Tour Championship. That tournament has been moved from the television graveyard of the first week of November to the middle of September. The goal is to get all the best players (read that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson) playing against one another week after week in a format that brings the main golf season to an end with a bang rather than a whimper.

The carrot is a $10 million award for the FedExCup winner and millions of dollars for the other top finishers, which will all go into the players' retirement accounts. That's a lot of money for any golfer, but will it matter enough to the billionaire-to-be-Woods or the multimillionaire Mickelson to tough out what could be seven tournaments in eight weeks?

Woods has shown interest in the new competition, if for no other reason than it will shorten his season considerably, but he hasn't fully wrapped his chiseled arms around the concept. When the FedExCup was first announced in the middle of the 2006 season, his response was: "It's a no-brainer. We are doing the right thing."

But like all great players, and particularly Jack Nicklaus, Woods's schedule is geared toward being in top form for the majors, and with 12 career major titles he is now just six back of Nicklaus's record of 18. "It's an unknown since the year has been switched around, but I'm going to try to figure out a way to get my schedule so I can peak for the major championships," said Woods at the start of 2007. "I have to have enough energy to peak for the majors and have enough energy for the end of the year."

The Tour has hitched itself to Woods's stardom for the last decade, but it was also clear that something had to be done to enhance the Tour's overall allure, especially in the television market. When Woods wasn't playing, it was as if no one else was either. Mickelson is a draw, and to a lesser extent Singh and Ernie Els. But when Woods doesn't play, especially in the bigger second-tier events, his absence beheads a tournament and its telecast. He didn't play in the Tour Championship last year and hasn't played in the Mercedes-Benz Championship, for winners only, the last two years.

So now there is the FedExCup, an attempt to cast the spotlight over a larger segment of Tour players and tournaments, providing enticements for Woods and Mickelson (perhaps), a definitive championship (in some people's eyes) and a hoped-for television ratings boost (TV contracts were coming up for renewal starting with the 2007 season).

"What we saw at the end of last year, we didn't have guys [Woods and Mickelson] playing in the Tour Championship," says Davis Love III, the veteran player who is a member of the PGA Tour's policy board. "We had a kind of drop-off in interest towards the end of the year. So we needed a more impactful finish, and the players were asking, Why can't we finish in August or September rather than going all the way through to the first week of November? We needed something to sell to TV that wasn't the same old thing. You know, if Polo [Love's clothing line] didn't change something every spring and fall, they just brought the same clothes every time, you would get tired of it."

Practically every sport except tennis, even NASCAR, has playoffs now. NASCAR has its Chase for the Nextel Cup in which the top 12 drivers in points, qualify for the final 10 races of the year to determine the driving champion. The success of the National Football League playoffs, the Major League Baseball playoffs, the NCAA's March Madness and NASCAR's Chase made the Tour consider revamping its schedule. "NASCAR's changed, baseball's changed, football's changed their playoffs," says Love. "Hockey made some huge changes so that they would have a package to sell. I think that's what we had to do to come up with something that people wanted to watch and something [exciting] that carried the audience all year."

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