To connect fans to playoffs, connect tournaments to each other

To connect fans to playoffs, connect tournaments to each other

Keegan Bradley, who leads the Tour Championship, is the only 2011 major champion in the field at East Lake.
Rainier Ehrhardt/AP

ATLANTA — Keegan Bradley, the PGA Champion, is trying to make the Presidents Cup team. He’s trying to win player of the year honors. He’s trying to have the best rookie season in forever. He shot a 64 at East Lake on Thursday, in the first round of the Tour Championship, the last of the four FedEx Cup events. He’s got something — big somethings — riding on every shot. You get $1.44 million for winning the event. You get $10 million for winning the FedEx Cup.

So he cares. Of course he cares. The question is, do you?

Do you think it’s weird that that a Big Golf Event is being played right now and that three of the year’s major winners — Charl Schwartzel (Masters), Rory McIlory (U.S. Open) and Darren Clarke (British Open) — are not even in the field? I do. Yeah, I know: it’s the Tour Championship. You have to be a card-carrying PGA Tour member to be in the thing. Bad prerequisite. You’re not going to have a big, meaningful, juicy golf event in September without the biggest names of the year. The absences just make the thing look small, smaller than it already does with its 30-man field.

Matt Kuchar, a study in steadiness, shot a 67 on Thursday, three under par. Does it bother you that Sir Kooch, an orthodontist’s dream and pro golf’s nicest player along with Steve Stricker, Adam Scott and the new-and-improved Vijay Singh, could win the 10 large without having won a tournament all year? I find it somehow . . . un-American.

East Lake is a gem of a golf course. Atlanta on the edge of fall is a spectacular place to be. (Although Thursday was wet and damp and it started raining hard at about 5 p.m.) “Tour Championship” has a nice ring to it. But the FedEx Cup playoff system is an absolute disaster. The four tournaments may be TV successes, but as a series of sporting events linked together there is absolutely no passion for it, not beyond the players’ locker room. The fact that only Watson (the computer, not the Bubba) could possibly understand the points system is just the beginning of the problem.

The Tour’s contract with FedEx for the playoff series expires next year, in its sixth year. Tour officials are discussing an extension now. But there is no discussion between FedEx and the Tour of a radical rethinking of how the playoffs are played. That tells you that various executives, both in Ponte Vedra and Memphis, are happy with the TV ratings the four playoff tournaments are producing. Nothing in modern life spells success like your eyeball-to-screen ratio. What’s lacking is anything resembling a passionate interest in the four events as a series, a playoff, an unfolding drama. People are smart. They can see it for what it is: TV programming, but not sport.

The conceptual problems are on full, inglorious display here in the playoff’s Week IV. (Is the use of Roman numerals a too obvious nod to a playoff system that works, the one that ends in the Super Bowl?) What’s so final about this finale, anyway? Billing this event as a sort of grand conclusion just smacks of fraud. Isn’t there a Fall Series event called the Open? Isn’t Tiger Woods playing in it?

Phil Mickelson shot 68 yesterday and said two interesting things.

Interesting thing No. 1: “Mentally, I’m in it. Whereas the last few months I haven’t really been as focused as I’d like to be.”

Interesting thing No. 2: “To have guys competing for $10, $11 million down the stretch, we definitely feel that.”

I’m sure they do. But I, for one, don’t. You want us to feel it? Maybe try something like this.

Think of the four events as one 18-round tournament. Start with a full field of the best players in the world. Make cuts after every single round. At the end of every day, for the first 12 rounds, the worst six scores, on a cumulative basis, are out of the playoffs. The Sad Six.

Everything is cumulative. The second week in Boston is not a fresh start; it picks up where the first week, in New York, ended. The third week, in Chicago, picks up where Boston left off.

In the fourth week, in Atlanta, you have about 70 players in the field, slotted on the basis of what they’ve done over the first 12 rounds. The Survivors. More cuts on Thursday. More on Friday. By Saturday morning, only 32 players are left. Thirty-two players who have earned the right to be there by what they did over the course of the season (which got them into the first event) and by what they did over 14 rounds. And then comes the one and only reset: The 32 players will play 36 holes on FedEx Saturday and FedEx Sunday. It’s winner takes all. The payday is $10 million, $11 million, some ridiculous sum. But the winner will feel like he’s won a prizefight, and we’ll be right there with him. We’ll care.