Relax, It’s (just) FedEx

19/09/2012 § Leave a comment

The final leg of the PGA Tour Playoffs wraps up this coming weekend at East Lake, and statisticians, including yours truly, are having a field day in anticipation of the possible scenarios that may play out.

As has been voiced in prior posts, the FedEx Cup Playoffs scoring scheme has been a work in progress over its first five campaigns.  Even though most golf fans still can’t wrap their heads around the system, or prefer to be spoon fed the scenarios, or simply wait for it all to unfold, most would agree that the PGA Tour has got to have it right now, finally.  How else could such perfect drama have been manufactured on last year’s final stage that saw Bill Haas splash his way from 25th in the standings to the top?!

I’m writing tonight in part to explain that what happened last year was both anomalous and unfair.  For Haas to win it all required the perfect storm; he needed to win the event of course, and hats off to him for doing so, but he also needed a ton to go wrong for the gentlemen who entered the week at the top.  That happened.  Webb Simpson (entering the week in 1st) finished in 22nd, Dustin Johnson (2nd) finished 23rd, while Justin Rose (3rd) and Matt Kuchar (5th) finished tied for 20th in the 30-man field.

Unlucky Luke

The only other man who entered the week in the top 5, with a chance to control his own destiny, was Luke Donald.  And in all fairness, Luke held his form, finishing just one stroke back of Bill Haas at -7 in a tie for 3rd.  A three-way tie for 2nd would have won him the title, but three terrific par saves at the last by Hunter Mahan, KJ Choi and Aaron Baddeley prevented that reshuffling of the final standings from happening.

It would be imprudent to begrudge the system for what happened without acknowledging the job it did in rewarding clutch play when it mattered most.  Bill Haas won the Tour Championship at East Lake.  He out-dueled Luke Donald and 28 other men to win when it mattered most.

But Haas entered the week in 25th while Donald came to East Lake in 4th.  He bettered Luke by one measly stroke, but that was apparently enough to make up the difference that separated them before the week.  Correct me if my conclusion is wrong, but the 1540 points that separated the two were essentially meaningless. Bill was able to overcome the difference by beating Luke by one shot over the course of 72 holes.

For good measure, I’ll point out that Luke Donald finished better than Bill Haas in each of the first three playoff tournaments: 18th (-11) vs. 24th (-10) at the Barclays; 3rd (-13) vs. 61st (+1) at the Deutsche Bank; and 4th (-8) vs. 16th (-1) at the BMW.  With all due respect to Haas, I submit that Luke Donald should have been awarded the FedEx Cup in 2011.  As consolation, he won the PGA Tour Player of the Year title a couple of months later.

A Decorated Leaderboard

The alignment of stars, moons, and all other celestial bodies that enabled Bill Haas to come out of the depths of the earth and through the stratosphere last year will not occur this year, mark my words.  I’ve heard several analysts point out that in each of the past two playoffs, the eventual winner has come from outside the top 10, so be prepared for the unexpected.

Not this year.  The reason the past two winners were able to pull it off was because of the caliber of the FedEx Cup leaderboard going into the final event.  The unproven youngsters mentioned above who collapsed in 2011 had zero majors between the 5 of them (yes, Webb got one THIS season).  In fact, no golfer in the top 13 heading into East Lake had a major to his name.  The year prior, the likes of Hoffman, Stricker, Kuchar, Johnson, and Casey comprised the top 5, again none with a major.

The case couldn’t be more dissimilar this year.  Golf fans have been treated to the duel at the top between Tiger Woods and his seeming successor Rory McIlroy.  It would truly perplex even John Huh (pronounced “?!?”), currently 26th, if either of them laid an egg so badly and slipped far enough down the standings to allow a 20-something ranked player to emerge the victor.  It won’t happen.  And even if it could, Phil is right there in 4th to shut the door on those chances.

Expect an Anticlimax

Even with the star-studded leaderboard, betting odds still favour that the winner of the Tour Championship itself will come from outside the top 5 (62%), and that’s not accounting for the artificially inflated odds that Woods, McIlroy, and Mickelson garner; it’s realistically more like 80%.  What I’m trying to say is be prepared for a guy like Adam Scott (currently 21st), Jim Furyk (18th), or heck, even Luke Donald (15th) to win the Tour Championship.  And there are 22 other guys outside that top 5 for whom probability says have a good chance of winning.

If any of them does just that, this is what I predict will take place.  We will watch Sunday afternoon some sort of split screen as Woods or Rory sit in the clubhouse in some sort of three-way tie for 2nd or 3rd, and at some point before even the penultimate group reaches 18, a putt will be missed, or sunk, or whatever, by whomever, and one of the two will look around hesitantly for confirmation that they have just clinched the FedEx Cup for 2012.  And then some awkward congratulations will ensue about a half hour before the winner of the actual tournament is decided.

I want to see this format succeed.  But I just don’t see that it can.  PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem already admitted in an appearance in the broadcaster’s booth at the BMW Championship that the men behind the curtains are looking at revamping scoring once again for next season.  No doubt, Mr. Finchem has starred into his crystal ball and seen a scenario play out like the one above that he knows is very likely.

In the end, I hope I’m wrong.  We’d all love to see Tiger and Rory wind up in a playoff on Sunday afternoon knowing that winner takes all.  And that can still happen.  Even if it does, however, it’s hard to know where it places in importance.  $10 million is nothing to sneer at, but the fact remains that each of the 4 majors holds a prestige that the FedEx Cup can’t yet come close to competing with.  And then there’re the accolades of player of the year, a more measured acknowledgement of the best player on Tour.

Finally, lest we forget, the Ryder Cup begins just 4 days after all of this is wrapped up.  The following Sunday could very well see the truer Rory-Tiger dual that golf fans are all crossing, overlapping, or interlocking their fingers for.  And whatever attempts at drama are made this weekend might be swiftly forgotten as soon as that FedEx cheque is signed, sealed and delivered.

-Wittman

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