Tweak, tweak. No, that’s not a canary with a cough. That is the sound of change. Players and PGA Tour officials promised that the FedEx Cup and its so-called playoff system would be tweaked before next year. On Tuesday, the Tour announced the details of the changes, most of which had already been leaked. The Tour also outlined the specifics of its new drug testing policy, which will go into effect sometime in the second half of 2008.
Here’s a look at the changes for the ’08 PGA Tour season and whether they were good, bad or irrelevant.
FedEx Cup playoffs: Not much changed here, only the schedule. Players complained this year about four consecutive playoff tournaments, and next year’s original lineup featured the Ryder Cup the following week. So in 2008, the first three rounds of the FedEx Cup playoffs (Barclays, Deutsche Bank and BMW) will be followed by a week off. Then comes the Ryder Cup, followed immediately by the Tour Championship.
Analysis: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, among others, were likely to skip two of the four Fedex Cup events if something wasn’t done. Not changing the schedule wasn’t an option. Even with the changes, you’ll hear plenty of griping next year, and you’ll still see some absenteeism. A top player’s projected schedule looks like this in the last half of ’08: British Open, week off, Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship, week off, three FedEx Cup playoff events, week off, Ryder Cup and Tour Championship. That’s eight big events in 11 weeks. Expect Tiger and Phil to still skip one FedEx Cup playoff event. And it wouldn’t be shocking if either one of them, or both, pleaded fatigue after the Ryder Cup and passed up the Tour Championship, too. They did their parts this year to get the FedEx Cup launched and may not feel a responsibility to carry it again next year.
FedEx Cup points: No changes yet. The regular-season points system will remain the same. The playoff points system could still change in response to criticism that it doesn’t create enough movement in the standings. That is still being examined and will be decided at a February meeting.
Analysis: The Tour should’ve junked the regular-season points system. It wasn’t much different from the money list, and the confusion it created was a roadblock that most fans never got past. In the playoffs, the points system makes a Cinderella-story, come-from-behind charge impossible. As it stands now, perhaps only six players have a shot at the FedEx Cup title — the two who finish first or second in regular-season points, and the four who win the playoff events (assuming no player wins more than one). That’s not a scintillating pennant race. The playoff points need to be upped, and players who miss playoff cuts should lose points.
FedEx Cup payoffs: Sure, you were concerned about Tiger Woods and his finances when you found out that the $10 million first prize he won last year was an annuity that he can’t collect until he retires. Hopefully, he can struggle along until he’s able to cash that check. Players were upset about the annuity plan, even though it may be a wiser investment choice, primarily because the Tour ignored their wishes on the issue. The squeaky wheels got some grease. The winner will now get $9 million in cash and $1 million in tax-deferred pay. Only the top 10 finishers will see money up front, however. They’ll divide $16.5 million in cash, and another $18.5 million will be paid on a tax-deferred basis to the top 150 players.
Analysis: Look for more complaining on this issue. The top 10 finishers get cash and everybody else gets retirement-plan payments? The bottom-feeders of the Tour will see this as another case of the rich getting richer. Nobody wants that … except the rich.
The rest of the schedule: There was a mini-revolt this year when the new event near Washington, D.C., hosted by Tiger Woods, was made a limited-field invitational. The shrinking schedule meant shrinking playing opportunities. The Tour addressed this problem by adding another opposite-field event to the schedule. The Puerto Rico Open will be played the week of the CA Championship at Doral. Other returning opposite field events are the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico (opposite the Accenture Match Play), the U.S. Bank Championship (opposite the British Open), the Legends Reno-Tahoe Open (opposite the Bridgestone Invitational) and the Viking Classic (opposite the Ryder Cup).
Analysis: The ’08 schedule offers 5,672 playing opportunities for members, up from 5,585 in ’07. Of course, it’s actually fewer than that because five events are held simultaneously and a player can’t compete in both. As long as the Tour can keep the lame Fall Series events propped up, there won’t be a problem with the rank and file.
Drug testing: Unannounced spot drug testing will begin sometime after July. The list of prohibited substances includes performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and beta blockers, among others. Drugs of abuse such as marijuana, cocaine and assorted narcotics are also on the banned list. The Tour isn’t saying what the specific penalties will be, but it has the authority to impose disqualification, a maximum one-year ban for the first violation, a maximum five years for a second, a lifetime ban for multiple violations and fines up to $500,000. The commissioner also has the power to require treatment and rehab instead of other sanctions.
Analysis: Looks like Ricky Williams doesn’t have a future on the PGA Tour. Applaud the Tour for having the guts to include marijuana and cocaine in the program. It seems doubtful that many players will fail the test for performance-enhancers, but drugs of abuse are a different story. It’ll be interesting to see how fines and penalties are meted out. For instance, if a marquee attraction like Tiger Woods tested positive for steroids, would he draw the same penalty as Tag Ridings? Players who are using a banned substance for an approved medical treatment can apply for a therapeutic-use exemption, but “I can only make putts if I smoke weed, man,” doesn’t qualify.
But here’s the big question: The drug testing doesn’t extend to the members of the media who cover golf, does it?