Can the FedExCup be saved?

Another FedExCup has come and gone. The PGA TOUR’s TV partners have been shoving it down golf fans’ collective throats for months, showing every golfer’s rank in the standings at every event as though anyone cared, trying to get people revved up for the “Playoffs”, and it still didn’t go over with golf fans.

The FedExCup was supposed to be golf’s answer to NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. Finally, golf would have its own season-long points chase culminating in a “playoff” event to crown a champion. It hasn’t worked out that way. After the first two FedExCups ended anticlimactically, the PGA TOUR (as it pretentiously capitalizes itself) decided they didn’t want to risk even the slightest chance of the Cup being decided before the TOUR Championship was even played, and adopted a bizarre system where the values of the Playoff events ballooned to five times the normal levels, and the points weren’t reset until the TOUR Championship itself, at which point anyone in the top 5 could win the Cup. Was the TOUR Championship an event held at a course appropriate enough to crown the champion of the entire year in golf? Who the hell knows.

All I know is that NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup doesn’t seem to have been negatively affected by the possibility of someone all but locking up the title before the final race. I also know that guaranteeing that the FedExCup would come down to the last event hasn’t actually gotten anyone more excited for the FedExCup. It doesn’t help that Tiger Woods was out of the running this year, but no one cared last year either, when Tiger won the whole thing.

What’s the difference between the Chase and the FedExCup? What is NASCAR doing right that the PGA TOUR is doing wrong? Some of it is elements outside the TOUR’s control; NASCAR already had a tradition of a season-long points chase, and golf owes virtually all its popularity to one man right now. No one cares about the vast majority of people competing for the FedExCup, and the PGA TOUR has made it worse by inviting over a hundred people to partake in their “playoffs”, virtually ensuring no one any good is going to be on the bubble not to get in. Wow, way to make your non-majors matter! No wonder you moved the reset to the last event!

The points system doesn’t help – golf fans mocked it roundly when it first came out for its complexity (winners received 4500 points!). At the same time that it moved the point where the points reset, the TOUR also decided to make the points more user-friendly. It did this by reducing the points for a win… to 500. Wow, that’s nice and intuitive. Granted, the TOUR needs to make room in their points scale for the 70 players that make the cut. NASCAR only needs to make room for 43 or so, so they get away with awarding 190 points for a win. The TOUR would probably be awarding 300 points if it wanted to be proportional about it, but it can do even better.

How about this: 100 points for a win.

It’s a nice, round number – everyone and their mother is familiar with 100, and can conceptualize it in terms of percent. The World Golf Rankings use 100 for a win in a major, let alone a regular event; complex modifications aside, what’s wrong with the points system you already had? I’m not going to be using the World Golf Rankings points system, though, and I’ll explain later how I cram 70 players into 100 points.

2nd place receives 50 points, a bit less than the World Golf Rankings and a lot bigger drop-off than the 20 points from a higher number in NASCAR. If they lose in a playoff, they get 70 points, reflecting the fact that outside the US Open, most golf tournament playoffs involve choosing one hole that may or may not be representative of the entire course.

3rd place gets 35 points, 4th 30, 5th 25, 6th 21, 7th 18, 8th 15, 9th 12, and 10th place receives 10. Ties receive the highest possible number of points. Yes, I know money is awarded by taking the average of the tied positions, but the money list does that because it has a set purse; the amount of money it awards in total is predetermined. For points standings, do you really want to ask casual fans to do all that addition and division to decipher the points standings or determine how many points each golfer will get? And is there anything less user-friendly than fractions of a point?

Beyond 10th place, points are awarded based on strokes, not positioning; subtract one point for each stroke behind 10th to a minimum of 1 for anyone who makes the cut. This is one of the biggest sources of confusion in existing ranking schemes: in most golf tournaments, most of the players who make the cut tend to cluster around a few scores, resulting in massive ties. By awarding points for these positions based on position, the number of points awarded is almost based on chance, even using the money list’s system. This way, mid-table golfers know every stroke is worth one point – no more, no less. And setting a hard minimum of 1 also gets rid of those horrible fractional points.

What about majors? 150 points for winning a major, 100 for playoff losers, 75 for second, 50 for third, 40 for fourth, 30 for 5th, 25 for 6th, 20 for 7th, and the same as before for the rest. THE PLAYERS Championship awards 125 for winning, 80 for playoff losers, 60 for 2nd, 40 for 3rd, and the same as before for the rest. World Golf Championship events award 110 for winning, 75 for playoff losers, and the same as before for the rest. Events held the same weekend as bigger events give winners 25 points, 20 for second place (playoff or no), 15 for 3rd, 12 for 4th, 10 for 5th, and deductions for strokes behind 5th to a minimum of 1 – though beyond a certain point, you shouldn’t get benefit of the doubt for squeaking past the cutline and then crapping out at an event the best players were spending somewhere more important. Again, no fractional points.

How exactly the championship is awarded is a thornier issue, although the current approach surely isn’t it. The purest approach is to not do any reset or jacking up of the points, but then you need to be prepared for the championship being well in hand at the final event, and maybe even the winner not showing up there at all. You could just do successive cutlines without resetting the points standings, so each “playoff” event counts the same as any other, but that’s unlikely to affect the top players.

Do you have a four-event playoff, and reset the standings beforehand? Maybe, but you need to make sure the events are balanced – some courses have higher roughs, some wider fairways, some are longer than others. Make sure you have enough of a balance of challenges as you do the rest of the year, so everyone is challenged evenly and someone has to be a very good all-around golfer to take enough of a lead to skip an event.

This is something I’m not sure NASCAR has figured out – near as I can tell there isn’t a single road course in the Chase, and while I know correlation doesn’t imply causation, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not a coincidence that the advent of the Chase has coincided with Jimmie Johnson’s literally unprecedented run of dominance. Also, in accordance with the notion of providing a balance of challenges, have only one cutline and cut only the top 70 or 30. (Or maybe two, with a second cutline where you go from 70 to 30.

Do you bring only the top 15-30 players or so to the TOUR Championship, and have that event be winner-take-all? Maybe, but if so, you better make damn sure you push it as a fifth or sixth major, at least on par with the PLAYERS. Put it at storied courses like Pebble Beach (the course also needs to do a good job of teasing out the best all-around golfer rather than being an outlier), hand out major-level money or more, do everything you can to make sure golfers and fans see it as one of the top six most important events and prizes of the year. Only enjoin it with other events in a “playoff” if a) you do cuts without resets as above, or b) the cutline for the playoff events is determined entirely by the order of finish on the course that week. A low cutline also ensures it succeeds in its real goal, encouraging participation and success in the TOUR’s “other” tournaments.

In retrospect, it may have been a mistake for the TOUR to leave ESPN in favor of the Golf Channel as its sole cable partner; heaven knows ESPN wouldn’t just shove it down our throats but send it out the other side. The TOUR is left hoping the Comcast/NBC merger not only goes through but succeeds in creating a true competitor to ESPN. It’s also still an open question whether or not non-head-to-head sports like the PGA TOUR or NASCAR should even have “playoffs” given the need to balance fair competition with a dramatic finish. And in the end, will anyone care if Tiger doesn’t care? Will anyone care if there is no Tiger? Will anyone care about golf if there is no Tiger?

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