Why NASCAR's playoff system works and the FedEx Cup playoffs don't, plus Rory McIlroy in the Van Cynical Mailbag

Wednesday September 10th, 2014
The 2014 Tour Championship will miss Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, shown here at the 2009 event, which Mickelson won while Woods won the FedEx Cup.
Fred Vuich/SI

What’s wrong with this month’s FedEx Cup race?

Three things.

Two of them are Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Woods and his bad back didn’t qualify for the so-called playoffs. We’re spoiled, of course, because the FedEx Cup, if nothing else, is a chance to watch the greatest player of this century tee it up a few more times. When he doesn’t play, a lot of folks just don’t watch.

Mickelson is out, too. He quit after shooting a second-round 76 at Cherry Hills. So this week’s Tour Championship will go on without the two players who have carried golf for the past 18 years.

The third thing? The points system. It never made sense and it still doesn’t. Despite the incessant TV graphic “projections” about where a player would rank if the tournament ended at that second, a hopelessly meaningless stat during the first two FedEx Cup tournaments, there’s no playing-along-at-home with FedEx Cup points.

It’s too complex and a player’s position can change without him hitting a shot because another player moved up or down, changing the first player’s position along with his. It’s a Rubik’s Cube that never stops moving. When Bill Haas won the Tour Championship after his lakeside up-and-down, the first thing he asked was who won the FedEx Cup? Oh, you did, he was told.

NASCAR has a similar and very popular points system that works because it’s got a small number of drivers and they race almost every week. Golf has a big number of players and they don’t play every week.

To top it off, those points the PGA Tour wants you to follow all season and memorize are reset for the finale, the Tour Championship. So no matter how far Tiger was ahead on points going into the finale, for example, that lead is wiped out and everyone is reset to the same lap, to use NASCAR terms. Why pay attention to points when they’re going to reboot before the end?

The FedEx Cup has been successful in forcing top players to play late in the season when most of them didn’t before. That has resulted in some exciting events and some great finishes. None of those finishes have been exciting because of the FedEx Cup points standings. Jim Furyk’s playoff putt in the rain at East Lake in 2010 carried added drama because by then, we did know that it was for the $10 million prize, but it was an exciting playoff even without that.

There’s no way to guarantee a close, thrilling finish but my alternative to the current incalculable points mess is cumulative score versus par. Players simply have a running total for the four FedEx Cup events. This system has flaws, too, but also has two huge advantages. First, it offers a traditional score-keeping method that all golfers understand and, second, it allows players, fans and media to know where everyone stands in the big chase for the $10 million without chalkboards, erasers and Steve Sands.

The flaws? Well, one is that a player has to finish all four events to have a cumulative score. The first two FedEx Cup events have cuts so to use my system, you’d have to change that.

Unfortunately, that cut rule messes up my alternate leaderboard this week.

BMW Championship winner Billy Horschel would be out because he missed the Barclay’s cut. So did Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker, Webb Simpson, Martin Kaymer, Ryan Palmer and Geoff Ogilvy.

Sergio Garcia skipped the Deutsche Bank Championship and Jason Day pulled out because of injury so they, too, would be eliminated. Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley withdrew from the BMW so they’re out as well.

The other flaw is that my system wouldn’t guarantee a close finish or prevent a runaway. If Rory won the first three FedEx Cup events, he’d likely have an insurmountable lead in my cumulative scoring event. In the Tour’s point system, all he’d have is a modest lead.

While my idea seems eminently more fair, it may not make for a better TV show and that’s what all this is ultimately about.

So let’s take a look at how the FedEx Cup standings would currently look if my system were applied. Only 21 players completed all three events and to reward those players who won tournaments, I gave them a five-stroke bonus. Factoring in the dearly departed and the bonuses, here’s my alternate leaderboard:

-26 Jim Furyk

-25 Rickie Fowler

-24 Morgan Hoffman, Rory McIlroy

-23 Adam Scott

-21 Bubba Watson, Bill Haas

-20 Chris Kirk

-19 John Senden

-18 Jordan Spieth

-17 Ernie Els

-16 Gary Woodland

-13 Matt Kuchar, Charl Schwartzel

-11 Hunter Mahan, Zach Johnson

-10 Kevin Chappell

Horschel was 27 under par in the last two events and would’ve earned a five-stroke bonus for the BMW win. Had there been no cut at Barclay’s, he would’ve been in serious contention. Kaymer was 15 under in the last two and probably would’ve had a shot.

You’ve got a dozen players within 10 shots, which is pretty tightly packed. Ten shots over four rounds is nothing.

This system isn’t the answer, either. Maybe the Tour needs to go back to the drawing board. Would three weeks of FedEx Cup events instead of four be enough drama? We’re hearing top players, especially Mickelson, complaining about playing four or five weeks in a row.

Would total score really be more interesting than points? It’s certainly simpler.

If you wanted to end the golf season with a big bang, why not make the PGA Championship, the fourth major, the final event? Turn the FedEx Cup into WGC events with a bonus.

It’s easy to forget that before the FedEx Cup, the golf season ended with a whimper, usually someplace like Disney or Las Vegas where the only compelling story was three guys you never heard of just getting or just missing the PGA Tour card.

There’s probably a better idea out there but I’m not sure it’s going to matter. One of these months, I think the PGA Tour is going to cherry-pick the best events on all the tours around the world and become an overnight global tour. There may be 60 or 80 or 120 guys playing the top events. The events that don’t get chosen for the big-buck global swing will have to fight for sponsorship money and probably end up as slightly better versions of the Web.com Tour.

That sounds like it might be exciting on the surface, global competition. But how excited are American fans going to be when that big tour is playing in the Middle East or Australia or Europe? Probably not very. As we’ve seen with the LPGA Tour and its international flavor, one drawback is the reality, Out of sight, out of mind.

Debbie Downer says thanks for listening.

From the depths of the Van Cynical Mailbag…

Van Cynical, Simple question: who do you think will walk away with the $10 million this weekend?
--The Bogey Train via Twitter

I’m betting Alexander Mundy, John (The Cat) Robie or that gang of dudes from "Ocean's Eleven". If those top-ranked thieves don’t pull off the heist, I’ll go out on a limb and pick the best player on the leaderboard -- Rory McIlroy, your world No. 1. Yeah, I know it’s boring to go with the chalk and Rory needs another $10 million like I need $100 but it’s a figure that should still get his attention.

Van Sickle, If Scotland goes independent, will the Open only be played in England?
--BigMark via Twitter

All the best Open courses (except Royal Birkdale) are in Scotland so I hope not. I’d say the biggest problem would be that if Scotland becomes independent, Vladimir Putin may attack it.

Vans, The KLM Open offers a trip to space for a hole-in-one this week. What do you like to win when you make a hole-in-one?
--The Bogey Train via Twitter

I’d like to win anything, man. I’ve made seven aces and all I’ve got is a cheap-o little trophy with a 1 on it that Milwaukee County used to hand out to ace-makers on its courses. That was for my first ace back in 1978 at Brown Deer and I’d be shocked if they still gave out anything. If I won a trip to space, I’d want to be sure it was for a round trip and not a one-way ticket. I’d love a space ride, but if June Lockhart and Billy Mumy were on board, I’d get the hell out before blast-off.

Van Cynical, Start the golf season in January, move the PGA to March, do three FedEx events in August with aggregate scoring, end by Sept. 1 and ax the fall events. Thoughts?
--Chris Folds via Twitter

I’m down with a March PGA somewhere warm and your FedEx format, which I’ve been touting since Day One of the FedEx Cup. Three weeks is enough, I agree. Why ax the fall events, though? Sponsors are paying for them, fans attend them and you’d lose playing opportunities for a bunch of American pros, some of whom we’re going to need if we’re ever going to win another Ryder Cup. The marketplace will ultimately determine the fate of the fall events. The strong will survive.

Vans, Why do you think Tom Watson hasn’t contacted Paul Azinger? What has the PGA of America got against Larry Nelson? What’s with Watson’s geriatric vice captains?
--David Bailey via Twitter

Why would Tom need to talk to Zinger? Watson has already done this job before, in 1993, and Zinger was one of his key players that year. Zinger had a historic captaincy six years ago and rewrote the selection rules to field a more competitive team for the U.S. and Watson, by the way, gave back one of the four wild-card choices that Zinger insisted on. No one knows why the PGA never gave Nelson, a Ryder Cup assassin, a shot at the captaincy but it’s probably too late now. As for the aging assistants, captains usually pick their peers and Watson is 65. Who were you expecting as assistants, Justin Bieber and Jimmy Fallon?

Sickle Cell, Did Cherry Hills impress enough that it could get back in the major rota? What other courses deserve a shot, a la Merion?
--Tej Sahota via Twitter

The scores weren’t as low as I thought they’d be so maybe yes. One thing we learned from The International, a defunct Tour stop south of Denver, was that August is prime lightning season late in the afternoon there. That probably precludes a PGA. A U.S. Open, then? You could definitely play a Women’s Open or Senior Open there. I’m not sure about the men.

Vans, I play both right-handed and left-handed. The USGA won’t let me keep two handicaps. Why not?
--Richard Spreier via Twitter

You should try cloning yourself and making him a pure lefty. Or you could do what most people do and that’s set up a fake alternate identity with a legit Social Security number and passport and web-search info just in case you have to fake your own death to escape creditors, the IRS or Argentinian mobsters. I’m not admitting to anything but that’s why you’ve never seen John McCain and I together in a photograph.

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