HARRISON, N.Y. — After months of relentless hype (by the PGA Tour) and endless criticism (by everyone else in the golf world), the FedEx Cup finally began Thursday with the first round of the Barclays. It did not immediately revolutionize the sport (as the Tour had been promising it would), nor was it an utter disaster (as so many shrill critics had predicted). It did not have the buzz of a college football bowl game, or the atmosphere of a playoff game at Fenway Park, or the excitement of an NCAA tournament tilt. What it felt like was a golf tournament — a good tournament on a nice course with a strong field, but, in the end, just another golf tournament. This is both good and bad news for the Tour.
The leaderboard after day one at Westchester Country Club was an eclectic mix of stars (Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Adam Scott), no-names (Briny Baird, Heath Slocum), grinders (Steve Flesch, Jeff Maggert), bashers (K.J. Choi, Carl Petterson), dinkers (Brian Gay), cocky rookies (Anthony Kim), cocky veterans (Rory Sabbatini) and free spirits (Rich Beem, Mark Calcavecchia). All of them had differing motivations. Ernie Els, for instance, has not disguised his apathy for what he likes to refer to as “the FedEx Cup thingy.” He’s here because he needs to win a golf tournament, badly, to continue the recuperation of his game and psyche, and he has traditionally played well at Westchester. A little bump in his retirement account means little to a man of Els’s vast wealth.
But Beem has the urgency of a guy playing for his supper, which he is. The five-year exemption that came with his surprise win at the 2002 PGA Championship is up after this year, and he is trying to avoid a trip to the dreaded Q School. FedEx Cup events offer huge purses that could literally change the course of his career, and Beem is all too aware of it. At 134th in the points standings, Beem has to move up 14 spots to earn a tee time at next week’s tournament in Boston.
“I think the general public still doesn’t really understand what the playoffs are all about,” Beem said on Thursday, after shooting a 64 that left him tied for second, one back of Rory Sabbatini. “But I tell you what, there’s a lot of guys in this tournament who know what the playoffs are all about, the guys No. 121 through , we all know what the playoffs are all about. If I don’t play well this week, I have to take a vacation which I don’t really want to take. I want to play well this week, and I want to play in Boston and I want to play in Chicago. Chicago is my favorite tour stop and I have to play well to get in, and I have to play well to get in next week, so it has my attention.”
That’s the paradox for the Tour — the most compelling action these next few weeks is at the bottom of the leaderboard, not the top. Statistical models have shown that only the top 15 in the points reshuffle have a real chance of winning the overall Cup. If Beem or Baird (102nd in points) or Gay (76th) or Maggert (100) wins this week, nothing really changes in the chase for the Cup. But watching the journeymen sweat it out for the chance to play another week may be the most compelling storyline at Westchester. Of course, this is not the stuff of $45 million ad campaigns.
The key to enjoying this inaugural FedEx Cup is a matter of scale. From the beginning the Tour has oversold the concept, elevating expectations. The bottom line is that the Cup is not that big of a deal on the sports landscape, but it does offer much better golf than we’re used to this time of year, so be thankful for that. The drama, such as it is, will be parceled out in little increments, mostly involving guys who will never be household names. After all the pontificating about the FedEx Cup, now it’s time to focus on the golf, for better or worse.