- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

ATLANTA — The fledgling FedEx Cup could prove to be the PGA Tour’s golden goose.

In spite of a raft of format criticism from players, fans and media, it’s difficult to argue with the results of the tour’s inaugural playoff series. Heading into this week’s FedEx finale at the Tour Championship, three players have a realistic shot at capturing the tour’s first playoff crown: world No. 1 Tiger Woods (112,733 points), No. 2 Phil Mickelson (108,613) and renaissance man and FedEx series Cinderella Steve Stricker (109,600).

“I think it’s been successful, maybe not to the degree that everybody wants it to be in the first year, but I think it will get to that point,” Mickelson said. “I think it’s starting out with a nice start, and I think it’s going to get better and better each year.”

The 37-year-old Mickelson edged Woods at the Deutsche Bank two weeks ago to temporarily vault to the top of the FedEx standings before controversially skipping last week’s penultimate playoff stop in Chicago, the BMW Championship.

Both Mickelson and Woods, who skipped the Barclays — the initial FedEx event — have been critical of two principal aspects of the event:

c The tour’s decision to direct the $10 million purse into a deferred compensation retirement plan, meaning the winner won’t see a dime of FedEx lucre for two decades.

c The length and scheduling of the playoffs, which virtually dictated a grueling run of seven marquee starts in nine weeks (WGC Bridgestone, PGA Championship, week off, four FedEx series starts, week off and Presidents Cup).

Both Woods and Mickelson, neither of whom ever play more than three straight weeks, managed to survive and thrive in the format thanks to their superb starting positions in the standings and stellar play in only two playoff starts apiece. Mickelson won in Boston, and then Woods posted a touche victory last week in Chicago.

Some players in Atlanta this week openly questioned the legitimacy of a playoff system that allows players to skip events. Veteran Mark Calcavecchia likened it to the Indianapolis Colts choosing to skip the AFC Championship, and outspoken South African Rory Sabbatini said on Tuesday that he felt skipping a playoff event should result in forfeiture in future FedEx Cups.

“I think we’ve all learned to take what he says with a grain of salt,” Mickelson quipped in response to Sabbatini’s position.

Speaking publicly on the subject for the first time since the playoffs began last month, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem sided with Mickelson and Woods on the issue.

“In hindsight, I think fans looked at Tiger and saw a guy who played all year, got the No. 1 seed and used it to sort of have a bye. And they seemed to be OK with that,” Finchem said. “I would say that generally mandating players to do something in our sport is something we would always shy away from.”

Finchem’s responses concerning the FedEx Cup’s other perceived format flaws were far more vague, though he did promise that the entire system would be evaluated in the offseason with extensive player input. From the fans’ perspective, one of the primary possible pitfalls of this week’s FedEx finale is that 25 of the 30 players gathered at East Lake for the Tour Championship have been mathematically eliminated from the FedEx Cup chase. It’s not only possible but statistically likely that the winner of this week’s event won’t be the overall FedEx champion, setting up a potentially awkward Sunday scenario in which the fight for the FedEx Cup might not involve players on the Tour Championship leader board.

“It could be a little funky coming down the stretch,” admitted Stricker, who wasn’t among the top 50 in the world rankings at the season’s start but has enjoyed a career year highlighted by five top-10 finishes and a victory at the Barclays in his last seven starts. “Hopefully the guy that ends up winning the tournament ends up winning the FedEx Cup. I think that would be pretty cool.”

Finchem seemed not only unfazed but delighted yesterday by all the debatable nuances of the format.

“We like a lot of the controversy that has surrounded elements of the system,” Finchem said. “We like it because it gets people talking about the cup, it gets people interested in the cup and it’s fun.”

There’s no denying that the FedEx series has generated more buzz than most expected. Though football still owns the American sports fan in the fall, the Woods-Mickelson duel two weeks ago in Boston qualified as some of the best theater of the golf season. And according to Finchem, last week’s BMW Championship, which Woods won with a course-record Sunday score of 63, outstripped any post-PGA Championship golf telecast in history.

“Based on the preliminary numbers, that first week into the NFL season, the second week into the college football season, was the highest number of households watching our product ever … better than Ryder Cups, better than Presidents Cups, better than the World Golf Championships, better than the historical position of the Tour Championship. … This has been a big success this year and a huge step for the future,” Finchem said.

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