Third time might be charm for FedEx Cup playoffs

September, 26, 2009
09/26/09
3:24
PM ET

ATLANTA -- A few years back, when the FedEx Cup playoffs were but a gleam in Tim Finchem's eye, when the idea of such a format was just beginning to take shape, there were plenty of meetings among PGA Tour executives at the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., headquarters during which details often were discussed.

I can only imagine that at one point, either the commish or someone else in the room, giddy with excitement over the prospect of what this system could bring, vocally envisioned a scenario in which the game's two biggest drawing cards and two most talented players -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson -- each received a trophy on the final green at East Lake Golf Club.

On Sunday, that possibility became a reality.

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With Mickelson claiming the playoff-ending Tour Championship and Woods clinching the FedEx Cup title, officials finally realized their dream scenario, which was a far cry from the first two editions of this system. In 2007, Woods hardly needed to win the tournament to claim the Cup but achieved the double anyway; last year's finale included even less drama, as Vijay Singh needed only to complete 72 holes to take the grand prize.

Whether this newfound entertainment value is the work of a third consecutive tweaked scoring system or the serendipitous nature of these elite players getting hot at the right time, one question lingers in regards to the destiny of the playoff format: How will this result affect the FedEx Cup's future?

We won't know for certain until later this year, but you can bet a 19th-hole beverage that the PGA Tour will do everything possible to reenact this scene in 2010. And that means retaining the status quo for the first time since the institution of this series.

That's not to say the current format is perfect. Consider that even those most involved have a difficult time calculating just how and why the results happen as they do, instead offering similar responses about solid play taking care of everything else.

"I don't know enough about it," Mickelson said of the current points formula after moving up from 14th to second with the win. "I know that if you play well, you win. If you play well, you do well, and I think that's important. I don't know; I haven't really invested the time to look at it. I just know that if I play well, things will work out."

Things worked out for the PGA Tour thanks to a season-long system that rewards players for strong play in the first three playoff events, then resets the standings with set differentials between each player. If you are with Mickelson and believe it sounds like a lot to digest, you're right.

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It might not matter, though. After all, had the playoffs allowed for, say, non-winners Marc Leishman and Jason Dufner to be holding trophies aloft come Sunday afternoon, there would be a public -- and within those headquarters, maybe private, too -- outcry for a change that would create more buzz by giving the best players over the course of the season more priority in finishing atop the final standings. The dual-trophy ceremony of Woods and Mickelson proved that increased volatility is acceptable -- as long as it leads to noncontroversial results.

"We had a lot of kind of unknowns going into the playoffs this year, how it was going to turn out because of the resetting, and guys could have gone the entire year without winning an event and still won the FedEx Cup," said Woods, who now has won each of the FedEx Cup playoffs in which he's competed. "But you know, the whole idea is to play well at the end, and that's kind of how it's structured. It is a system. You just have to play well at the right times."

Although he joked about besting Woods by 5 strokes in the final round, yet still coming out $7 million shy of his fellow competitor in FedEx Cup money, even Mickelson acknowledged he didn't deserve to top the standings.

"I didn't play well the first three FedEx Cup events," he said. "I don't deserve to win the entire FedEx Cup just based on one tournament win. It's got to be based on all four. So the way it worked out so far this year, it seems like it's just. The best player won, the guy who played the best in all four events won, and I liked the fact that I was able to make up extra ground here in the final event."

There's surely a "rich get richer" sentiment surrounding the FedEx Cup, and that won't dissipate with the two largest paychecks being doled out to two of the three highest earners in PGA Tour history. And yet, that's exactly what needed to happen in order for the format to be considered a success in its third variation.

They might not have gotten it right, but they got it right enough to showcase a dramatic, entertaining conclusion featuring the game's best players. That should be enough to ensure that the next edition of the playoffs looks very much the same as this one.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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