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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."

Briefly, here's how the FedExCup works: a pool of points—25,000 for regular events, 27,500 for major championships (which includes the Players Championship) and 26,250 points for World Golf Championship events—will be awarded each week. The number of points a player receives is based on his tournament placing. One hundred forty-four players will make the field for the "playoffs," with the final qualifying tournament being the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina, the week after the PGA Championship. The four playoff tournaments begin with the Barclays Classic on August 23 at the Westchester Country Club in suburban New York City. Only 120 players will qualify for the next tournament, the Deutsche Bank Championship in suburban Boston, and 70 players will move on to the BMW Championship in suburban Chicago. From there 30 players will advance to the Tour Championship, slated for September 13—16 in Atlanta, and the FedExCup winner will be crowned.

The structure is basic enough, but the key for the players is how to plan their seasons not only to get the points to qualify and contend, but also to have enough energy to get through the playoffs. There is a World Golf Championship event the week before the PGA Championship, the Greensboro tournament after the PGA, and then the playoff tournaments and the Tour Championship and, three weeks later, the Presidents Cup competition. "That's a lot of golf right in a row. It's going to be hard," says Woods. "The only light at the end of the tunnel is that you get to have a nice break after that."

The Tour will carry on through the first week of November in a series of eight events known as the Fall Finish, but don't expect many players in the top 20 to be playing in them. Those tournaments will serve as cash cows, especially to players trying to make the top 125 on the money list to retain their playing privileges for the following season. Woods will likely be gallivanting around the world in the fall, collecting huge appearance fees and further enhancing his image. Mickelson, as he has the last two seasons, will probably hibernate at Rancho Santa Fe. Els, Jim Furyk, Retief Goosen and most other top 10 players will presumedly be seeking well-deserved R & R. Singh, just because he likes to play a lot, and John Daly, just because he needs to play more, will probably be the draws during the Fall Finish.

"We have a new format and I think getting used to that will be interesting," says Furyk, the world's No. 2 player at the start of 2007. "What is it, my 14th season, and I think being out here that many years and kind of picking the same order, the event, I knew exactly what to expect. A lot of tournaments are in a different part of the season [now] and so working the schedule is a little bit new. It's going to be hard at times picking and choosing the events you are going to play and not play."

Obviously, the impact of the competition is a great unknown. "Most guys are a bit scared, six tournaments in seven weeks, to be honest with you," says U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. "No one has ever had to do that. I mean, you're going to have to."

It's likely that the top players will be trying to gather as many points as possible through the British Open in July, perhaps even playing some tournaments that don't usually suit them, so that they can take at least two tournaments off before the playoffs start. Having enough energy at the end will be a key component to winning the FedExCup. Woods has proven himself the most physically and mentally fit of them all, and the player most likely to survive the grind.

Although the Tour has constructed the point structure to give as many players as possible a chance to win the FedExCup, it rewards players for consistently standout play by giving them an advantage for the playoffs. When the playoffs begin, the points earned during qualifying are reset and a new points system, a way of seeding the players, takes over. The No. 1 player gets 100,000 points, the No. 2, 99,000. The 144th player gets 84,700. If a player gets hot at the right time and the leading players cool off, there could be a drastic swing. It's a bit of a concern to the man who oversees all of this, Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.

"We ran over the space of two years umpteen models, and those models told us certain things about what we should do on the interval of points that are awarded for seeding positions," says Finchem. "The struggle there was that you wanted players to have a chance to win it. On the other hand, you're trying to provide an advantage for players who played better than the other guy all year long.... The models might be wrong. First year, second year we might have a situation we didn't anticipate and we ought to fiddle with it. I think it's a work in progress."

While the FedExCup point distribution, seeding and playoff format are new to the Tour—and to pro golf—Finchem believes it will be easy for fans to settle into the format and for the media to communicate it. "I think it's the perfect thing," says Finchem. "I mean, it's very easy, simple. It's very, very simple. You get points; the guy who gets the most wins."

All of this may very well be good for the television ratings. Last year's Tour Championship, without Woods and Mickelson, and mired in its usual spot in the heart of the NFL and NCAA football seasons, gathered a nearly invisible 0.9 TV audience rating. Moving the tournament to the middle of September and having a playoff series leading up to it at least gives the commentators something new to talk about and viewers something new to chew over. "And now Singh's putt for solo third place will not only earn him an extra $100,000, it will earn him an extra 1,000 FedExCup points and vault him into fourth in the standings with a week to go..."

It's also hoped that the FedExCup might enliven some tournaments that had gone flat. The Barclays Classic, under a series of sponsorship names, has been a stalwart of the PGA Tour since the early 1960s. The Westchester Country Club, the host of the event, has become a familiar site to television viewers for decades. But in recent years Barclays has been either the tournament right before the U.S. Open or the one following it, and that hasn't been necessarily good for the tournament's field or its image. Now there is hope of resuscitation as it becomes the first of the four playoff tournaments.

"The Barclays people were pretty quick to embrace it," says tournament director Peter Mele. "It distinguishes the event from the average tournament. It had become identified with the U.S. Open and had become overshadowed by it. Now it has its own identity."

It's possible the top seeds in the FedExCup chase might skip the first playoff event to save their energy for the final three, or if they accumulate enough points in the first two playoffs, might skip the third. "All the models we've seen, all the players who want to win the FedExCup, must play all the events to have a chance of winning," says Mele.

Already the interest generated by the possibility of Woods and Mickelson both playing at Westchester has been a winner for the tournament. Mele says hospitality sales are at an all-time high, and that the tournament will finally be able to remove hospitality suites from behind the greens on the last few holes and replace them with bleachers, where thousands of fans can see and cheer, breaking the code of silence of the suite life.

"It's not the same old Barclays as it was for 40-some years," says Mele. "It will feel different and will give the fans a chance to see all these great players close up."

The idea is for the top players banging heads against one another four weeks in a row, an unprecedented situation in the modern era. "We've never had a situation where everybody's played head-to-head four weeks in a row," says Finchem. "We hope that's what happens this year. I think stamina is an important thing in the sport, and if stamina becomes a factor, I don't think that's a bad thing."

Vijay Singh is 44 and stamina is not an issue with him. He showed up at the start of the season looking 20 pounds lighter and 10 years younger. He ran away with the Mercedes-Benz Championship, the first tournament of the season, and made history, of sorts, by earning 4,500 FedExCup points. But only the victory matters to Singh.

"If you play well, you don't have to worry about the FedExCup," says Singh. "That's the bottom line."

Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.


A FEDEXCUP PRIMER

This year, the PGA Tour inaugurates the FedExCup championship, a season-long competition that culminates at the Tour Championship in mid-September. Players will gather FedEx Cup points throughout the season, then compete in four playoff tournaments, including the Tour Championship. One hundred forty-four players will qualify for the first playoff tournament, and a cut will be made for subsequent tournaments. Here are the basics of the competition:

The points system
There will be 25,000 points available for each regular Tour event, earned by the top 70 finishers and ties. At the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship and The Players, 27,500 points will be allocated. At World Golf Championship events there will be 26,250. At additional eligible events during the qualifying season, there will be 12,500.

Winners of major tournaments will receive 4,950 points, second-place finishers, 2,970, and third-place finishers, 1,870. At WGC events the top three finishers will be awarded 4,725, 2,835 and 1,785 points, respectively. At regular events they will earn 4,500, 2,700 and 1,700. At the additional events they will get 2,250, 1,350 and 850.

The final qualifying event is the Wyndham Championship at Greensboro, North Carolina, August 16—19, after which the points are reset and new point totals awarded to players as a way of seeding for the playoff tournaments.

The playoff tournaments
The four playoff tournaments are, in order, the Barclays Classic, August 23—26; the Deutsche Bank Championship, August 31—September 3; the BMW Championship, September 6—9; and the Tour Championship, September 13—16.

The No. 1 seed will get 100,000 points to start, the No. 2, 99,000, etc. There will be 500-point drops through No. 5, 250-point drops from 6 to 10, 150-point drops from 11 to 30 and 75-point drops thereafter. The winner of each playoff event will get 9,000 points; second, 5,400; third, 3,400, and so forth. Only 120 players will advance to the second playoff, 70 players to the third and 30 players to the Tour Championship, where the point awards will be slightly higher. It's possible that the winner of the Tour Championship and the winner of the FedExCup will be different players.

Photo by Reuters/Hugh Gentry

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