Kevin Streelman playing within system

ATLANTA -- Kevin Streelman is a long shot to win the $10 million bonus at this week's Tour Championship, but he already has something that money cannot buy.

Invitations to three major championships.

Streelman, no matter what happens this weekend at East Lake Golf Club, can already make travel plans for Augusta, Ga.; Bethesda, Md.; and Sandwich, England.

Those are the locations for the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open next year.

Throw in a trip to Miami for the World Golf Championship event, and Streelman has plenty to look forward to in 2011 -- especially when you consider he was in none of those tournaments this year.

All of this is possible simply because Streelman, 32, made it to Atlanta.

Each of those major championships has a provision in its exemption criteria that if you make the Tour Championship field, you get a spot in the Grand Slam event the following year.

And Streelman, through no fault of his own, has found himself in the awkward position of having to defend himself simply for playing well at the right time and taking advantage of the invites offered.

"It seems the only people who have a problem with it are sports writers," Streelman said Thursday after an opening-round 70 at East Lake that put him in a tie for ninth, 4 shots behind leaders Luke Donald, Geoff Ogilvy and Paul Casey.

"They've been writing stuff I don't necessarily agree with. I fully respect it. I have no problems with them discussing their opinion."

The opinions have vaguely suggested that Streelman is what is wrong with the FedEx Cup.

And that is unfair. Streelman is what is good about the FedEx Cup.

He is the only player here who was outside of the top 100 in FedEx Cup points when the playoffs began last month at The Barclays.

He has qualified for his first Tour Championship, and is now headed to the big time in 2011.

And yet, Streelman is just 67th on the PGA Tour money list and has never won on tour. He is ranked 147th in the world. He made it here, basically, on the strength of one event, tying for third at The Barclays. He was then 45th and 43rd at the next two playoff events and held on to finish 29th in points for the 30-player field.

Is that major championship worthy?

"The point system lends itself to that," said Steve Stricker, who began the playoffs in second but fell to fourth despite three top-10 finishes. "And I think that's what some people are realizing, not only the tour, but some players. There's so much riding on finishing in the top 30 -- getting into the majors and all that.

"It should take more than one good week. And nothing against the guys who have done it. It's really looking at the position where they came from.

"If they're outside the top 100, should the guy who had a top-5 [in a tournament] be in the top 30? I don't know if that's really right. I think that's what everybody is seeing."

But is that the FedEx Cup's fault?

There needs to be some amount of volatility for the concept to have merit.

"We definitely agreed that two years ago, when the FedEx Cup was won by Vijay [Singh] before we even got to the last event, it wasn't volatile enough," Streelman said.

So the PGA Tour tweaked the system so that it couldn't be won before the Tour Championship. It heavily weighted the FedEx points so that the top earners would have the best chance of winning the FedEx Cup. And it gave everyone a chance, weighting the points toward those with high finishes.

Here's the rub: Did the major championships have to go along?

Before the FedEx Cup came along in 2007, the Masters gave invitations to the top 40 on the PGA Tour money list, along with those who were ranked among the top 50 in the world. The U.S. Open gave spots to the top 30 on the season-ending money list, along with a top-50 world ranking provision. The British Open used to exempt the top 20 money winners and the top 50 in the world.

All three now give spots to anyone making it to the Tour Championship, plus the world ranking exemptions. The Masters and U.S. Open also exempt the top 30 money winners at the end of the year -- something that Streelman could still achieve. The British goes by only the Tour Championship, but has myriad other ways to get into the tournament.

Officials from all three major championships said their qualification criteria are set for next year, and none seemed bothered by those who slip through the Tour Championship cracks.

The problem is there are numerous examples of players who are seemingly more qualified to play in majors. Justin Rose, for one, won the Memorial last June and had moved to 33rd in the world. The U.S. Open was a week later, but he met the world ranking criteria too late and was left out. Players who won opposite events on the PGA Tour this year -- or who win in the Fall Series -- will not get Augusta invites.

Meanwhile, a player can punch his ticket to the U.S. Open nine months prior on the strength of one good tournament, not even a victory?

Streelman, to his credit, understands the angst, but defends the FedEx setup.

"If you have a good year and you're top 10 [in points], you're pretty much going to get to the Tour Championship," he said. "But if you want to truly call this a playoff system, then you should have to compete well in the playoffs to get to the World Series of our sport."

Of course, Streelman could end all of this blather, at least in relation to his own situation.

If he wins the Tour Championship on Sunday -- regardless of how he fares in the FedEx Cup standings -- all will be forgotten.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.