Structural change is finally coming to the PGA Tour. Last week’s announcement of the coordination of top players to play elite events combined with new made-for-television, technology-heavy exhibitions are significant departures from the traditional PGA Tour model.
In theory, the announced changes should be positive developments for the PGA Tour and golf fans as a whole. More often, fans will know when the best players will be in attendance at a given event. Still, there are some glaring issues that the PGA Tour needs to address as it works through the details of its new structure, the most immediate of which is an overhaul of the FedEx Cup Playoffs and the Tour Championship.
Straight cash, homie
As with all developments in 21st-century sports (shoutout new Big 10 members USC and UCLA), the FedEx Cup came about because money was on the table. The PGA Tour and FedEx partnered on a deal that would ensure every golf fan hears the words FedEx Cup no fewer than 923 times throughout the year and, in turn, a bunch of money would be funneled to the players through a season-ending payout. The idea was to emulate other American sports that use a playoff format to crown their champion, e.g. the Super Bowl or the World Series. Of course, that proved complicated since golf, unlike other sports, is a series of individual events, not a league structured around a grand prize at the end of the year.
Modified and reconfigured multiple times since its inception in 2007, FedEx Cup Playoffs are a manufactured mess stuck between being a season-long race and a true playoff system. The structure is billed as a “season-long” race when in reality the final three events are the be-all, end-all in determining the FedEx Cup champion. The final ranking and associated payouts don’t guarantee the season’s best players reap a year-long reward, and should injury strike, as it did in Will Zalatoris’s case last week, top players can finish far below their deserved ranking.
As the Tour evolves, it will have to decide what the next iteration of the FedEx Cup Playoffs look like. If it were up to me, they wouldn’t exist.
Learning from the Euros
The PGA Tour’s attempt to mimic the playoff system of American team sports hasn’t worked because golf is a fundamentally different concept. But looking across the pond, the English Premier League and Formula 1 offer systems that more closely resemble what the PGA Tour should look like—systems that don’t use a season-ending event or playoff to determine their winner. These organizations let the season speak for itself. The team with the most points at the end of the EPL season is the champion. Same goes for the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships in F1. This format can lead to anticlimactic finishes at the end of the year, but the title fights do often go down to the wire. Regardless, the format ensures that the top team/driver is crowned the champion (excluding the 2021 Drivers’ Championship).
But while these two leagues don’t use a playoff system, it doesn’t mean they haven’t thought about it. In 2010, the EPL considered adding a playoff between the teams that finished fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh in the table to decide who received the final spot in the Champions League. The idea was to add drama to the end of the season and keep more teams in the mix for a spot. It wasn’t a playoff to decide the overall champion of the league, but it would have been a significant shakeup in the EPL structure. The playoff idea was never implemented and the format remained such that the top four teams qualified for the Champions League.
On the other hand, Formula 1 recently experimented with a format similar to that of the FedEx Cup Playoffs. In 2014, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final race of the season, awarded double points to drivers and teams. In normal times, all races in an F1 season are awarded equal points, but the double points would potentially allow more teams and drivers a chance to win the year-long races in Abu Dhabi. The idea was originally pitched as a doubling of points for the final three races of the season but was quickly negotiated down to one. Reason being, no one liked it. “To me it just seems very artificial that third place [in Abu Dhabi] will now be worth more than first place at Monaco or another race,” Red Bull Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey said at the beginning of the season. “It’s a shame that in the drive to try to keep the championship alive to the very last race you take this artificial route to it. [It] just seems to me to be cheapening the sport.”
The double points concept was so poorly received by fans and teams that abolishing it was added as an agenda item to year-end meetings before the Abu Dhabi GP even occurred. “Yes. Nobody likes the double points,” Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff said ahead of the final race. “It’s probably something we should be getting rid of for next season.” Unsurprisingly, the double points season-ender was scrapped just days after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Using F1 or the EPL as a model, the PGA Tour could easily move to a season-long FedEx Cup that is just that: season-long. Instead of being set aside as a manufactured playoff system, the FedEx St. Jude Championship, BMW Championship, and Tour Championship would be folded back into the regular season. They would still carry significant weight as the season-ending events that would crown a champion, but they wouldn’t carry four times the amount of FedEx Cup points. Those tournaments could even feature reduced fields if the PGA Tour wants to keep the focus on the chase for the title. More often than not, the FedEx Cup champion will be decided during the final two events of the season. Premier League teams and F1 drivers are almost always fighting for positions down the stretch, regardless of the title fight, because of the payouts and status associated with different finishes. The same goes for final FedEx Cup standings and the massive payouts that come with different results.
Yes, this system would result in years when a player is too far in front to be caught in the final week. Scottie Scheffler wouldn’t have had the chance to cough up the 2022 FedEx Cup at East Lake because he would have locked up the title before the BMW. But the guy won four times this year, including three of the events that will be elevated in 2023, had three other runner-up finishes, and nine total top fives. The PGA Tour must love that they can bow at the feet of FedEx Cup champion Rory McIlroy for another year, but Scottie Scheffler was the season-long champion.
Of course, there are obstacles to dropping the FedEx Cup Playoffs. The PGA Tour is different from F1 in that not every tour player attends every event. FedEx Cup points would need to be either weighted by field strength or, as Joseph LaMagna proposed on The Fried Egg Podcast, only available at a certain series of events, including the last three. Winning the Mexico Open over plumbers and accountants (shoutout J.J. Redick) cannot be worth as much as winning the Genesis Invitational.
On the sponsor front, FedEx has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in a multi-year deal for naming rights, as have BMW and Coca-Cola for playoff events. These sponsors put up funds with the promise that the best players would show up to events that matter in the season-long race. A playoff-free format wouldn’t feature heavily weighted FEC points and, on its face, wouldn’t appear more significant than any other part of the season. And if we’re being honest, winning one of these events isn’t any more significant than winning the Memorial or Arnold Palmer Invitational. But these sponsors would still have the events at the end of the season that decide the FedEx Cup. Players close enough to those top spots would be gunning to move up, as would those down the list, as each additional place would earn more bonus money. For FedEx specifically, moving to a season-long system would significantly elevate what it means to be a FedEx Cup champion. Right now, it’s possible that any player who gets hot at the right time can wear the crown. A season-long model would allow the FedEx Cup to be known as the award given to the year’s best player.
In its battle against LIV Golf, the PGA Tour has focused on the ideals of meritocracy and legacy. And yet, its current playoff system prioritizes drama over season-long success. It’s time to course correct.