I must confess to one of my nighttime vices: I like falling asleep to past editions of the Masters on YouTube.
At one moment, I am watching an ambitious 21-year-old talk about what it would mean to win a green jacket. Over the next 4.5 hours, he gets the job done. The year is 2015.
Next, I’m waking up to crowd roars following a KJ Choi holed 5-iron on No. 11 to vault himself into contention. He’ll go on to lose the tournament by three strokes to a legend, who has just captured his first of six major championship victories. The year is 2004.
These five-hour final round broadcasts on YouTube serve a larger purpose than providing calm background noise to a peaceful night’s sleep. They are time capsules. It is easy to forget that Luke Donald was the top-ranked player in the world for much of 2011 and 2012. It is easy to forget one of the best shots in the history of golf, Vijay Singh’s approach into Hole 15 in the final round of the 2000 Masters. These videos are portals into golf history.
The PGA Tour does not own any immersive windows into golf’s past, but the Tour Championship is the best opportunity to change that. Currently, the only time people fall asleep to the Tour Championship is when it is live.
The Tour Championship falls short for many reasons (like golf course selection), but chief among them, the format of the Tour Championship defies the spirit of competition. The FedEx Cup points system, a flawed system in its own right, dictates starting positions of each player. Last year’s FedEx Cup leader, Scottie Scheffler, entered the 72-hole tournament with a 10-stroke advantage over some of the participants. This is a problem.
A proper sports championship has at least the following two criteria:
- Every participant starts with the same number of points/strokes
- Every competitor is worthy of being crowned champion if he or she wins
Sungjae Im is a great player. His 2022 season was worthy of exempting him into top-tier events in 2023. However, his 2022 season was not worthy of entrance into the Super Bowl of golf:
Regardless of how this ends, consider how Sungjae got here and if his season is deserving of having a shot at winning "PGA Tour Season Champion." Top five points finishes below. pic.twitter.com/yNUb7VLtVK
— Joseph LaMagna (@JosephLaMagna) August 28, 2022
Despite finishing Top 70 in only one major championship last year, Sungjae had a legitimate chance of winning the Tour Championship on the back nine on Sunday. Ultimately, he finished tied for second.
Is this how we are supposed to remember the 2022 PGA Tour season? Sungjae Im was the second best player on the PGA Tour? Really?
Or how about in the other direction? In 2019, Dustin Johnson won a World Golf Championship and finished runner up in two major championships. But DJ played poorly in the Tour Championship and finished t29 for the tournament. Is that how we are supposed to contextualize Dustin’s 2019 PGA Tour season in golf history? He was the 30th best player?
I hear your counter-argument. “Joseph, we don’t use the Tour Championship results to evaluate the best players for the season.” Fine, what do you use? One of the many short-comings of the PGA Tour schedule is that it fails to leave a trail that reflects performance for the season.
However, there is a solution. The Tour Championship should become an eight-person match play tournament.
Spoke to Rory yday and it was cool to hear him say it would be “incredibly exciting” if the Tour Championship became matchplay. It’d be must-watch TV if two guys were playing for the FedEx Cup winner’s prize of $18 million on a Sunday https://t.co/YSIpTZYfFg
— Evin Priest (@EvinPriest) August 24, 2022
With only the eight best performers from the season competing, any player who wins the bracket would be a deserving champion for the season. Instead of sending players home once they are eliminated, have them battle out every place for positioning on the season-ending leaderboard. Now, second place means something.
As a reference point, the proposed format would have featured Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay, Will Zalatoris, Xander Schauffele, Sam Burns, Cameron Smith, Rory McIlroy, and Tony Finau in last year’s Tour Championship. Each player had a championship-worthy season.
This format would provide at least two key benefits over the existing format.
First, we would have an efficient way to reflect upon a past season and recognize the top performers. Plus, the final round broadcast could be packaged into a compelling, rewatchable time capsule like the Masters is.
Second, more match play engenders rivalries in a way that does not exist within the current state of golf. The Patrick Reed/Rory McIlroy tee-gate “controversy” from this past weekend is a prime example of where the existing golf infrastructure fails to create rivalries. When a skirmish happens between top players in the world, there is an extremely low probability that these players will ever compete head-to-head. Sorry that I rubbed you the wrong way, Rory; see you never!
Sure, it is possible for these players to pair up organically based on their position on a leaderboard. But even when given the same tee time, there is a massive difference between playing stroke play against another member of your group and match play. Stroke play lets players off the hook. At the end of a stroke play tournament, one player hoists a trophy and the rest of the field goes home empty-handed. Few other delineations stick with fans in the long run. On the other hand, at the end of a round of match play, someone has a “1” next to their name and someone has a “0.” Match play deems a winner and a loser.
Take a long view. Thirty years from now, it would be quite useful to have the means to evaluate past top players beyond the standards that exist today. “Wow, two legends in the same era…. What was their record head-to-head in match play?” would be a fun question for which to have an answer. Match play has permanence.
Golf doesn’t have to be bland. The Tour Championship should be an amazing spectacle. It could become a special way of documenting the history of the game. And it could be the location where scores are settled among top players in the world.
“See you in August” would be an exciting mantra. Until then, it’s see you never.