- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

Gentleman, start your backswings.

The NASCAR-ization of the PGA Tour begins a week from today as the FedEx Cup format debuts at the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship (Jan. 4-7) amid a swirl of excitement, uncertainty and skepticism.

“Most of the players I’ve talked to are reserving judgment until after they see how it plays out next season,” TV analyst and six-time major champion Nick Faldo said of commissioner Tim Finchem’s latest Tour toy. “If issues with the new format are almost universal with the players, so is interest in it. There’s no denying the buzz.”

Finchem is hoping that buzz spreads to the public, boosting the late-season TV ratings which have steadily declined in recent years.

The format

The concept of the FedEx Cup is fairly simple: Think Nextel Cup. Starting with the Mercedes-Benz Championship and ending with the Wyndham Championship (Aug. 16-19) the week after the PGA Championship, players will have 36 events to earn performance-based points.

There will be three tiers of events with descending available points (majors and the Players Championship, World Golf Championships and regular events).

After the 36 events, the top 144 players on the points list will advance to a four-week playoff, beginning with the Barclays Classic (Aug. 23-26). Available points will be doubled for these four events, and fields will be trimmed in each successive week from 144 to 120 (Deutsche Bank, Aug. 30-Sept. 2) to 70 (BMW Championship, Sept. 6-9) to 30 (Tour Championship, Sept. 13-16). The points leader after the Tour Championship (East Lake CC) will be crowned the FedEx Cup king and awarded a bonus check of $10 million.

The obvious intent is to boost marquee player participation, and resulting fan interest, in the post-PGA Championship portion of the tour’s schedule. This season, for instance, both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the game’s top two draws, chose to skip the Tour Championship, largely because of its late date (Nov. 2-5). Such an absence of star power is extremely unlikely given the schedule shift and new format.

And piqued public interest is a virtual given in the short run; the novelty factor alone should boost TV ratings for a season or two. But the new system, which Finchem admits is still a work in progress, is rife with potential flaws.

The foibles

Fact is, the inaugural version of the FedEx Cup features several holes. Here are the most obvious issues with the system, in ascending order of potential to doom the experiment:

1. To have and have not — Nobody knows how to alienate an audience like Finchem, who from the Casey Martin debacle to the Booz Allen smile-and-stab has long since secured his place as the sports world’s least tactful administrator. The FedEx Cup also has its diplomacy-free side, as its shortened primary season and post-FedEx season (seven events euphemistically labeled “the Fall Series”) are guaranteed to further emphasize the game’s caste system.

Nationwide Tour and Q-School graduates are certain to find it more difficult than ever to gain entry into middle- and upper-echelon events — which now dangle the FedEx Cup carrot — making the league long heralded as the most democratic in professional sports decidedly less so. A rookie will have a more difficult time than ever improving his lot when he gets eight FedEx Cup starts to a veteran’s 30 such appearances.

“If you look at the last eight or nine years, we’ve had a steady increase in the number of opportunities for our Q-school and Nationwide players,” said Henry Hughes, chief of operations for the PGA Tour. “That could change. We just don’t know what the FedEx Cup events are going to do. We can look at the last eight or 10 years and say, ‘Here’s the trend.’ If we weren’t doing the FedEx Cup, we could give a good expectation level. Now … we have some unknowns.”

In effect, the FedEx Cup is likely to create a third tour occupied by those in limbo between the FedEx spoils and the Nationwide scraps.

2. Head-to-helmet — No matter how you cut it, it’s still a football-first culture, and any multi-week system that intentionally chooses to go head-to-head with the start of the NFL season is questionable. America traditionally switches off golf after the PGA Championship in preparation to watch football. Does Finchem really want to stake the sport’s financial futures on a seed change in autumnal cultural sports values?

3. Skewed format — If the PGA wants a Nextel-style playoff bonanza, they should do it right. NASCAR trims to 10 drivers for its final series of races; the tour will start with 144 golfers. To make matters worse, the PGA also is going to reshuffle the points, NASCAR-style, heading into the four-event playoff. At the start of the Barclays Classic, the points leader will have his points reset to 100,000. No. 2 on the list will be reset to 99,500, and so on, down to No. 144 at 84,000.

This means that Tiger Woods could have a massive lead after the regular season — as he would have had this season — reduced drastically over a relative rank-and-filer heading into the four-event playoff. Woods could win 10 events and two majors during the season, but a winless Jeff Maggert could ride a playoff hot streak (say a victory and two other top-10 finishes) to the FedEx crown.

Now, who really had the better season? Please. Fact is, you shouldn’t have a large-field playoff and a reshuffle. One or the other is fine, but not both. By using both, the tour is playing with the same fire that resulted in 38 holes of Maggert versus Andrew Magee at the inaugural World Match Play Championship in 1999.

4. The major issue — Golf has always revolved around the four majors. Players have always and will always be judged and remembered by their performances in those four events. For that reason, players always attempt to peak four times a season, not for four weeks in September.

“I have no real interest in winning $10 million, but I have a huge interest in winning a major,” Ian Poulter said yesterday.

After the novelty of the FedEx Cup wears off — if it even lasts a season — does anybody think the Tigers, Phils, Ernies and Vijays of the world are going to organize their future schedules around the FedEx Cup’s closing sprint? Next season, Woods and Mickelson will face the prospect of a seven starts-in-eight weeks nightmare (with the WGC Bridgestone, the PGA Championship, a week off, the four-week FedEx playoff and the Ryder Cup consecutively) at the end of an already emotionally taxing season.

Does anybody really see either player committing to such a schedule?

If $10 million doesn’t mean much to Poulter, can Finchem possibly think it will serve as an inducement to Tiger or Phil?

“The bottom line is that golf’s crown jewels are, have been, and will always be the four majors,” Greg Norman said. “You can’t purchase history, tradition or a legacy for $10 million. Those things are priceless.”

The FedEx Cup is yet another attempt on the part of the PGA Tour to co-opt a chunk of the prestige possessed only by the majors (none of which are run by the tour). The Players Championship and WGCs represent past attempts — and relative failures — at stealing a bit of that grand slam spotlight. There’s no reason to think the FedEx Cup, while mildly more compelling, isn’t destined for the same underwhelming fate.

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