Sunday afternoon at the TPC Boston gave golf fans what we've been craving all season: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, paired together and playing well with a tournament on the line. It was exciting and fun to watch. And during the battle down the stretch, no one cared about the FedEx Cup point standings.
With the Barclays and the Deutsche Bank completed, the playoffs head to Chicago's Cog Hill Golf Club for the BMW Championship. Sixty-six of the top 70 players in the points standings (Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, Paul Goydos and Bernhard Langer are skipping the event) will compete in a no-cut shootout to determine which 30 will advance to the Tour Championship in Atlanta.
So what have we learned so far?
1. The playoffs are clearly not great, but the concept of a playoff system in golf has possibilities. For that, Commissioner Tim Finchem and the folks at the PGA Tour deserve credit. The end of the season had always been a slow crawl into obscurity with the NFL, college football and baseball playoffs taking center stage. A playoff system can add meaningful events and give fans a few more glimpses of the game's best players.
2. Marquee pairings draw interest. Duh! People have been more excited about the pairings than disappointed about the withdrawals. At the Barclays we got to see Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk play together for two days. At the Deutsche Bank it was Mickelson, Woods and Vijay Singh. Putting the points leaders together at the start of the tournament generates a buzz on Thursday and Friday that spills over into the weekend. A good idea long overdue.
3. You can't have top players skipping events. Tiger Woods skipped the Barclays, saying he was tired after winning the two previous weeks' events. The Sunday Nielsen TV rating was 2.1, which was lower than the 3.5 of that day's Little League World Series finale between Warner Robins, Ga., and Tokyo. And now Mickelson has pulled out of the BMW Championship. Enough said.
4. The system itself is too long and too complicated. On numerous occasions this season, players chuckled when asked by members of the media if they understood the FedEx Cup system. True, golf fans are starting to get a feel for it, but the casual sports fan has no clue how this thing works. If one of the goals is to capture more people's interest, you have to make it easy for everyone to understand how the playoffs work.
5. Too many people qualify. There hasn't been a lot of talk about this, but at least 19 of the 144 players who made the playoffs this year will not be fully exempt for the 2008 PGA Tour season. That's not right.
6. You can't have a year-end playoff if the year doesn't end. There are seven PGA Tour events after the Tour Championship, so is the season really over?
No one is going to ask me to take Finchem's job as commissioner, and I wouldn't want it. But if I were in his seat, here are the changes I would implement.
First, ditch the points system. The top 25 players on the FedEx Cup points list and the PGA Tour's money list were identical in 2007; the points just muddy the waters. Everyone understands the money list and its implications for those who are trying to remain exempt on Tour.
Next, reduce the field for the first round to the top 125 players on the money list. Greensboro would be the last tournament to determine which 125 players will be exempt the following year. The exempt players would then compete in a no-cut tournament, with the top 60 players advancing to the next round. Ideally, this could be done at a 36-hole facility like Westchester or Firestone.
If Woods, Mickelson, Singh or another top player has a bad week, he's out. Hey, that's what a playoff system is all about! Who ever heard of regular season records carrying over into playoffs? If so, my Red Sox would start the first round of the playoffs a game up in all of their best-of-seven series, but that's not going to happen.
The following week, the top 60 players would compete in another no-cut event, with the low 32 advancing to the Tour Championship. Here's the kicker: I would love to see the Tour Championship be a double-elimination match-play event. Seeds would be based on the players' standings on the money list, so the player who earned the most cash would start out by playing the guy who earned the least, and so on. The player who wins is crowned the FedEx Cup champion.
This system would make it impossible for players to skip an event. It's simple to understand and would create a lot of drama. Think about the office pools, and the fun fans would have with the head-to-head matchups between the stars.
While all this was happening, I would have the Nationwide Tour's season end and the PGA Tour's Qualifying School begin, with a major adjustment: everyone should have to play in all three stages. As it stands now, many Tour veterans only have to play in the final stage of Q School, but I think they should have to compete against the up-and-comers at every stage. That would give the young guys a better chance to make the Tour.
After a two-week break on both Tours, during which time the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup would be played, I'd like to see the next season begin. The European Tour is already doing this, and the early start allows lesser-known players to get a leg up on the stars. Right now, there is absolutely no incentive for the stars to play in the fall, but if the next season stated in autumn, they might have a reason.
My two cents
The Tour needs to do away with the bogus, computer-generated pairings. I find it unbelievable that "random" tee times never randomly put Mickelson and Woods together on Thursday and Friday. The Tour claims that these tee times maintain the integrity of the competition, but does that mean the pairings in the playoffs don't have integrity? The highest world-ranked players in each tournament should play together every week. This will give people a reason to seek out The Golf Channel on Thursday and Friday.
The LPGA requires its players to compete in every tournament at least once in a four-year period. I think a similar rule should apply to PGA Tour players, except I would make it at least once in the course of each TV contract (which right now is six years). This would bring the stars to the smaller-market events and would make it easier for tournament owners to line up sponsors.