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Are the FedEx Cup Playoffs Rewarding the Wrong Players?

ATLANTA — With the PGA Tour’s top players making piles of money, its commissioner was grappling with how to keep his stars interested and invested in competitive golf after the conclusion of the majors season.

Noting that the stars’ absence made it difficult to procure title sponsors for tournaments in the late summer and fall, the commissioner, Deane Beman, posed a question in a 1985 interview with the Los Angeles Times: “How do we make that work when a player gets rich and wants to take some time off?”

The question became more vexing over the years as the $200,000 single-year bonanzas of Beman’s era gave way to seasons like this one, in which 54 players have earned at least $2 million and the last-place finisher at the Tour Championship, which begins Thursday, will receive $395,000.

Beman’s successor, Tim Finchem, started the FedEx Cup, a season-long competition culminating in playoffs, in 2007 to sustain the interest of players and fans after the last major had been played and to ensure attractive fields for title sponsors of dog-days-of-the-season events.

Finchem’s successor, Jay Monahan, helped introduce more tweaks to the format this year, streamlining the playoffs from four events to three, increasing the purse and instituting a radical staggered start for the Tour Championship, the finale of the playoffs and the season. The points leader, Justin Thomas, will start the 72-hole event with a two-stroke lead over his nearest challenger, Patrick Cantlay, and a 10-shot advantage over the last five qualifiers.

Each new iteration of the playoffs, with their Fort Knox-size pot of gold at the end of the season, has made Beman’s concerns feel more dated and fed a new pressing question: What does the tour value most, majors or money?

The question is all the more relevant this week as the Tour Championship, which will confer a $15 million payout on the winner — a $5 million increase over last year — is being held at East Lake Golf Club, once the stomping grounds of Bobby Jones.

Jones, who won all four of his era’s majors in the same calendar year, was an amateur motivated purely by a love for the game, and for competition.

No man since has won the so-called calendar Slam. This year’s majors season was book-ended by Tiger Woods’s winning his fifth green jacket at the Masters and the Irishman Shane Lowry’s victory in the British Open in Northern Ireland, which Monahan called “two of the greatest stories of the year.”

Neither Woods, who won the Tour Championship last year, nor Lowry is included in this season’s final chapter, yet the 30-man field does feature 11 players, led by Abraham Ancer, who didn’t win a tour event this season.

“I think that the story lines that develop as you get to the back end of the year and into our playoffs — and the increased volatility that we’re delivering — is creating a compelling product for our fans, our core fans and those that we’re seeking to bring into our sport,” Monahan said.

In addition to his major victory, Lowry, 32, posted second-, third- and eighth-place finishes in 14 tour appearances, which was five fewer than Thomas made. In the end, Lowry needed more starts or higher finishes in the first two playoff events (he tied for 52nd and 48th), where more FedEx Cup points were awarded.

ImageCreditJohn Amis/Associated Press

After the Masters, continuing physical ailments limited Woods, 43, to six starts, including two missed cuts. His withdrawal from the first playoff event because of a mild oblique strain was the dagger. The tournament winner, Patrick Reed, received 2,000 playoff points — and the top four finishers, including Ancer, the runner-up, each received more points than the 600 that Woods collected at the Masters.

“I think majors should award 1,000 FedEx Cup points,” said Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner and a former world No. 1.

A reward of 600 points, he added, “isn’t quite enough for that level of achievement.”

McIlroy isn’t the only player who feels that way. “I agree 100 percent,” Gary Woodland, the reigning United States Open champion, said.

The only other reigning major champion in this week’s field, the world No. 1, Brooks Koepka, offered a different perspective. “You look at the Patriots,” he said, referring to the N.F.L. team. “They can go undefeated and lose the first week of the playoffs and they’re out.”

The analogy seemed like a stretch. If the majors are golf’s version of the Super Bowl — that is, the legacy-creating, career-making events — wouldn’t that make the tour playoffs more like the Pro Bowl?

“You could argue that,” Koepka said. But on the tour, he continued, the spotlight extends beyond the majors to events including the Players Championship and the World Golf Championships. “The playoffs, they need to be different,” Koepka said. “I think they need to have more weight, put more emphasis on it.”

The value of the playoffs as they are currently constructed, Koepka said, is that someone who previously struggled could get hot at the end of the season, advance to the Tour Championship and have his life changed overnight.

Someone, for example, like Ancer, 28, who entered this season with less than $2 million in career earnings and parlayed his second-place finish in the first playoff event into a berth at East Lake.

Ancer collecting the $15 million windfall would be a feel-good story. But what if the winner is Thomas, whose career tour earnings top $30 million? Or McIlroy, whose career tour earnings are approaching $50 million?

By creating an end-of-the-year money grab to keep the players interested, the Tour helps solve problems for the game’s financial stakeholders — players and sponsors — but may be creating less of an emotional investment for its fans.

“It’s definitely a thought that came into my head,” McIlroy said. “How can we make ourselves more relatable to the fans? And having $15 million front and center isn’t probably the best way to do it.”

At risk is organic fan engagement, the kind the Tour Championship saw last year when thousands spontaneously rushed onto the fairway to walk to the 18th green behind Woods in an advance celebration of his first victory since he had four back operations.

Justin Rose secured the FedEx Cup championship last year, and with it, a $10 million payout. He acknowledged Wednesday that his achievement that day was overshadowed by Woods’s resurrection. Asked what that was like, Rose joked, “Well, my bank manager didn’t mind.”

More on the FedEx Cup PlayoffTiger Woods Watches His Season End at BMW ChampionshipAug. 18, 2019Peaking at the Perfect Time, Patrick Reed Wins The Northern TrustAug. 11, 2019FedEx Cup Rule Changes Make Playoffs Easier (for Fans)Aug. 7, 2019


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