Don't forget little guys at East Lake
Wouldn't you like to be one of the top five players in the FedEx Cup standings this week in the Tour Championship at the East Lake Golf Club? All you need to do is win and you'll walk away with the $10 million first prize as the playoffs champion. With a strong regular season and top finishes in the first three playoff events, you have earned the right to control your own outcome.
If you're Tiger Woods, Nick Watney, Phil Mickelson or Brandt Snedeker, you might have taken a beating from Rory McIlroy over the last few weeks, but now you have a chance to get revenge on Bobby Jones' childhood stomping grounds in Atlanta.
Life is good.
But what if you're someone on the other end of the spectrum, like Ryan Moore, John Senden or Scott Piercy? You've come to Atlanta assured of a place at next year's Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship by virtue of making it here. If you want to win it all, you'll need to win and have McIlroy finish close to last. Not only that, the golfers immediately behind McIlroy also can't win and several other players will need to have all kinds of bad luck and trickery for you to have a shot to win the Cup.
I'm not feeling sorry for you. Last year Jonathan Byrd won $128,000 for finishing last in Atlanta. But I feel your pain. And I don't expect you to have the good fortune that Bill Haas had last year when he won the Tour Championship and the playoffs after Webb Simpson finished 22nd at East Lake. Haas came into that week 25th in the standings. Simpson was No. 1 after a win, a T-10 and a fifth in his three playoff starts.
There is no way that McIlroy is going to finish anywhere close to 22nd this week. So we have the finale of a playoff that's not really a playoff in the sense that the underdogs on paper -- Moore, Senden and Piercy -- have no real chance to win. What makes any playoff system exciting is the opportunity for the little guy to win. That's the American way. Haas' double victory last year (the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup title) is probably as good as it's going to get under the current system.
Is the system fair to the players at the bottom of the heap?
With T-10s in two of the three playoff events this year, Moore has had one of the best runs after starting the series 64th in the standings. He was one of only two players who teed it up in the last playoff event -- the BMW Championship -- and played his way into the top 30 for the Tour Championship. The 29-year-old former U.S. Amateur winner has done exactly what you're supposed to do in a playoffs: He has performed consistently under intense pressure with no margin for error. Every week he's been up against the Miami Heat. If he had the best four days of his career, he could beat McIlroy and Woods and take the Cup.
FedEx Cup Standings
1. Rory McIlroy
2. Tiger Woods
3. Nick Watney
4. Phil Mickelson
5. Brandt Snedeker
• The top 5 players in the PGA Tour playoff standings can win the FedEx Cup title (and the $10 million bonus) if they win the Tour Championship.
• FedEx Cup standings
In 1985, Villanova shot an amazing 79 percent from the field to beat the highly favored Georgetown Hoyas in the NCAA men's basketball championship. What if you told Rollie Massimino and his undersized players that it's nice that you put on one of the greatest shooting performances in college basketball history, but Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas were just too dominant in the tournament to hand you guys the national championship for one great game?
It's important to measure performance over more than just one game or four-day tournament. That's why we play a best-of-seven series in pro basketball, baseball and hockey. That's why the FedEx Cup has a regular season and a playoffs. But it's hard to have a good David and Goliath story in these playoffs when the number crunchers are the ones hurling the stones.
Sure, the FedEx Cup has been a monumental success this year. Any time you have the game's marquee names battling each other for three straight weeks, it's good for the game. But the playoffs still lack that big game. As the playoff finale, the Tour Championship is supposed to serve that function, but it cannot be that if all the players aren't realistically playing for the same prizes.
Moore shouldn't need dark angels to descend upon McIlroy and most of the field for him to win the FedEx Cup.
Should he be happy just to be in Atlanta? Although that might not represent Moore's feelings on the matter, many players come to the Tour Championship with that mindset, because the odds that they'll win the big prize are so stacked against them. Still, the consolation for this hopelessness is a hefty portion of the $35 million bonus pool.
McIlroy should win what would be an unprecedented third straight playoff event in Atlanta this week. As more than one TV sports commentator has put it through the years, big-time players make big-time plays. And right now, McIlroy is as big as it gets in the game. He's made more big-time plays with his golf clubs over the last month than anybody in the game. He deserves to have the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. He's earned his place in Atlanta. But so have Moore and those other mathematical long shots to win the Cup.
Moreover, if the FedEx Cup really wants to be a great playoffs, it needs to give us a great game. It needs to give us an important, impactful game for all the marbles, where it doesn't matter what you did yesterday. These 30 players at the place that Bobby Jones made famous are up to it. Just let them play.