Published September 27, 2011
ATLANTA – This might have been the most compelling golf playoff that hardly anyone saw.
After all the mathematical possibilities had been exhausted, the Tour Championship — and the FedEx Cup — came down to a sudden-death playoff between Bill Haas and Hunter Mahan. The monetary difference between winning and losing was just under $10 million. Haas, with a recent history of folding, hit a shot into the bleachers on the first playoff hole and into the water on the second playoff hole.
He not only survived, he wound up winning.
It was great theater.
And yet the overnight rating on NBC Sports was 1.4, and that's the kind of math everyone in the TV business understands. On a day filled with football, not many were watching golf.
Does that make the FedEx Cup a failure? By no means.
Players who act as if they don't care about the FedEx Cup are usually the ones who either didn't qualify for the playoffs or were eliminated early. Anyone else who thinks the FedEx Cup is contrived drama either is mistaking golf for a team sport or has forgotten what golf looked like before the PGA Tour created this postseason plan.
You think the Tour Championship was a tough sell in late September? How much were people paying attention in early November?
The overnight rating for the final round of Tour Championship on Nov. 5, 2006 — the year before the FedEx Cup came along — was 0.9. To be fair, neither Tiger Woods nor Phil Mickelson played that year, which is another problem the FedEx Cup tried to solve, and did.
The year before that, when Bart Bryant won by six shots over Woods, the TV rating was a 2.1. That would amount to roughly a 5 percent decline in ratings each of the last six years, which industry officials say is typical for all sports except the 900-pound gorilla known as the NFL.
No one ever said the FedEx Cup was perfect.
Trouble is, no one has come up with a better solution.
Match play for all the marbles only sounds good in theory, but it doesn't work for television, it doesn't work for the fans on site and it doesn't work for sponsors (who pay the bills and use that week to entertain clients). It barely works once a year in Arizona.
The idea of making the playoffs all or nothing is impractical at best. To start with a clean slate for everyone, at the start of the postseason or after each playoff event, is to render meangingless the first eight months of the season.
Despite all the number-crunching involved at the end, the FedEx Cup is not that hard to understand.
The best players all year long (Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, Nick Watney) and those who win the playoff events (Webb Simpson, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson) will have the best shot at the $10 million and are at least assured of getting to the Tour Championship.
Everyone at the Tour Championship still can win the FedEx Cup, but those at the bottom of the list (Haas was No. 25) need those at the top to have a bad week. Simpson, who was No. 1, finished 22nd. Johnson, who was No. 2, was another shot behind. They had bad weeks.
It would help if NBC Sports were not hung up on a math exhibition during the telecast. Yes, points are the measure. But it's more about position in the tournament. Donald needed a two-way tie for third. You don't need a chart or even an abacus to illustrate that. A standard leaderboard will suffice.
Haas didn't help when he said he didn't know the playoff would also decide the FedEx Cup. He either was being coy or had a short memory when he added, "I didn't ask and nobody told me." In fact, two PGA Tour officials informed him in the scoring trailer that if he got into a playoff, he would be playing for all the cash.
There were so many possibilities in the final hour that eight players were still in the running for the $10 million prize, six of them based on the shots they hit, two of them based on math.
Is it a farce that Simpson could finish 20th and still win the FedEx Cup? No more than when David Duval had to finish 24th at the Tour Championship in 1998 to win the PGA Tour money title, or when Vijay Singh had to finish in a two-way tie for third in 2003 to win the money title.
The Tour Championship never had much drama to begin with. Duval once referred to it as an All-Star game, and that's about what it was. Most years, Woods had already wrapped up the money title before East Lake.
Now we have a FedEx Cup, which delivers four tournaments of all the best players in the month after the PGA Championship, compared with the old days — a calendar full of events that hardly any of the best played.
For golf fans, what's not to like about that?
Two years ago, Woods won the FedEx Cup and Mickelson won the Tour Championship. Golf had its two biggest stars on the 18th green, both holding a trophy. A year ago, Jim Furyk got up-and-down from a bunker on the last hole to avoid a playoff with Donald and win both trophies.
This year featured a three-hole playoff, the richest overtime ever in golf.
It doesn't determine the best player of the year. It's not a major. And it's not a Super Bowl. Golf can never be properly compared with other sports, especially team sports.
Tennis doesn't have a Super Bowl, either.