Commentary

Examining playoff permutations

Updated: September 19, 2012, 2:45 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Everything would be simple if Rory McIlroy won the Tour Championship. Or if Tiger Woods won it, and McIlroy had a rare off week. Or if Phil Mickelson and Woods battled down the stretch on Sunday, the winner claiming the tournament and the FedEx Cup all at once.

Those are the easy, comfortable scenarios, the ones that make everybody at PGA Tour headquarters happy while also putting a nice, neat wrap around this FedEx package.

But if you want bedlam, root for Louis Oosthuizen.

[+] EnlargeLouis Oosthuizen
Stan Badz/PGA Tour/Getty ImagesIf you like a bit of controversy with your golf, you might want to root for Louis Oosthuizen this week at the Tour Championship. The 2010 Open Championship winner could win the FedEx Cup playoffs without earning a single PGA Tour victory all season.

Not to win the tournament, mind you. But to finish second. And then have a bunch of other things happen that would allow him to be the FedEx Cup champion despite not winning all year on the PGA Tour.

It could happen, which is why those in favor of change should cheer for chaos.

"It is what it is,'' said McIlroy, ranked No. 1 in the world and No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings -- but with only a small lead over Woods due to the resetting of points heading into the Tour Championship. "I think I've got Vijay [Singh] to thank for that from a few years ago. But I don't mind.

"It still makes it exciting going into the last event. It would be nice to have it wrapped up, but it's not. It's just the way it is. I'm not going to complain about it or moan about it. I accept it. I accept that I still have a lot of work to do this week, and that's what I'm focused on.''

McIroy's reference to Singh was from 2008, when he won the first two playoff events and arrived at the Tour Championship only having to finish the event in order to win the FedEx Cup.

The points structure was revamped the following year to the system that is in place now. And at times it still causes heads to spin.

"Guys still don't understand the points system yet, I don't think,'' Woods said. "It's set up so that if a guy wins the first three playoff events and finishes second in the Tour Championship, he could still lose it. I don't think that's quite fair, but that is our current system.''

If you follow college football and deplore the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), then you always hope for there to be controversy, for some team to come out of nowhere and mess up all the well-laid plans to pit obvious national championship contenders in a faux title game.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has often cited the BCS as a good thing, as such discussion is healthy for the sport -- which is why he doesn't have a problem with the current FedEx Cup points format, even if it can cause some uncomfortable moments.

Of course, the BCS is headed to oblivion, a four-team playoff to replace it in 2014. What would it take to get the FedEx Cup to change?

For now, everything is great. McIlroy leads the standings and Woods is second and Mickelson could still win the FedEx Cup with a victory. Same for Nick Watney and Brandt Snedeker. The top five in the standings heading in to East Lake are assured of winning the FedEx Cup if they win the Tour Championship.

The playoff events have been riveting, with McIlroy claiming the last two in Boston and Indianapolis, outplaying a world-class leaderboard at the BMW Championship to win for the fourth time this year on the PGA Tour.

But what if it doesn't work out so nicely? What if somebody who is not "supposed'' to win claims the FedEx Cup?

Take Oosthuizen, for example. The 2010 Open Championship winner and runner-up earlier this year to Bubba Watson at the Masters, Oosthuizen enters the Tour Championship sixth in the reset points.

He began the playoffs 34th, then had a tie for fifth at The Barclays, was second at the Deutsche Bank Championship and tied for sixth at the BMW Championship. That moved him to sixth in the points.

If he wins the Tour Championship and McIlroy finishes third or worse, Oosthuizen claims the overall title. And while it would take numerous outcomes, he could also win the FedEx Cup with a second-place finish -- meaning he'd win the overall title without a tour victory this year.

Last year Bill Haas was 25th in points (out of 30) entering the Tour Championship, but won the tournament in a playoff over Hunter Mahan. Because of all the various points permutations in play, Haas didn't realize he'd won the FedEx Cup until he was congratulated afterward by Finchem.

"I think the reason we have it to where it is now is it would be very similar to what the Patriots went through,'' Woods said of the 2007 New England Patriots, who won all of their regular-season games and were 18-0 before losing to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. "You sweep the regular season, you sweep the playoffs, but you don't win the Super Bowl, hence you don't win the whole thing.

"You could literally win every tournament the entire year, and finish second here and you don't win. That is kind of the premise about it. They're trying to put more of an emphasis on the Tour Championship and what it would mean instead of the cumulative total that you've done for the year.''

The system helps Woods, who can win the FedEx Cup with a victory -- or can finish as low as sixth and still have a mathematical chance of winning.

And since the PGA Tour went to this format in 2009, there has always been the possibility of a player who has not won during the year coming away as FedEx Cup champion. But it hasn't happened.

Woods won the overall title in 2009 despite Phil Mickelson's Tour Championship win; Jim Furyk captured both titles in 2010 as did Haas last year.

The scenarios this week, once again, are endless. Rory, Tiger and Phil could make it stress-free -- while also making for an incredible conclusion to the FedEx Cup.

But if you are a fan of controversy and consternation … root for the other guys.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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