Two moments defined the 2008 FedEx Cup. The first came on Sunday afternoon on the 9th green at stately Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis.
The 9th green? Yes, that’s where Vijay Singh, a back-of-the-pack scorer (44th in a field of 69), finished his final round of the rain-delayed BMW Championship. The real contenders enjoyed the traditional honor of completing the tournament on the 18th hole.
Still, it all came down to this extraordinary scene: Singh had a birdie putt to possibly win the FedEx Cup’s $10 million first prize. He missed. Then he had a par putt to possibly win the FedEx Cup’s $10 million first prize. He missed again. Finally, Singh rapped in his third putt for a bogey. And, oh yeah, for the 10 mil. His title wasn’t official quite yet, but it was overwhelmingly likely.
The outcome would depend on who won the BMW, and when Camilo Villegas withstood a posse of pursuers more than an hour later to earn his first PGA Tour victory, it was a done deal: The FedEx Cup belonged to Fiji’s most famous son. No matter what happens in two weeks at the FedEx Cup playoffs finale, the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Singh will reign supreme. Apparently, $10 million doesn’t buy much in the way of suspense anymore.
Tiger Woods claimed the inaugural FedEx Cup a year ago, a victory that, though lopsided, at least involved the Tour Championship and thus successfully launched the series. And now Singh has joined him in an elite winner’s circle that must be something like the Tour’s own Elysian Fields.
You can only imagine Singh’s reaction to this historic feat. Really. You can only imagine. Because in FedEx Cup Defining Moment Number 1, Singh declined to be interviewed about his then-still-probable title. A Tour media official and a determined international wire-service writer chased him down later in the locker room, where Singh obliged with a few comments that included criticism of Bellerive’s greens but nothing about his likely FedEx Cup windfall.
The playoffs had already suffered great indignities. The Ryder Cup captains’ wild-card choices sparked minicontroversies (Nick Faldo snubs lovable Darren Clarke; Paul Azinger takes Chad Campbell), which swept the FedEx Cup into a small, dark corner. In addition the remnants of Hurricane Gustav had wiped out the first day of play at Bellerive with nearly three inches of rain and forced a 36-hole session last Saturday, pushing the third round of the BMW from NBC, which was committed to airing Notre Dame football, to the viewer-challenged Golf Channel.
Finally, the convoluted math and permutations of the FedEx Cup, as simple to solve as Rubik’s Cube, twisted and turned on the BMW’s final nine. If contenders Anthony Kim or Jim Furyk won and Singh didn’t finish with a flurry of birdies, Singh would be mathematically catchable at the 30-player Tour Championship. A Villegas victory, however, ended the Tour Championship’s relevance, although it was close. The difference between first place and last at East Lake is 10,500 points. Singh’s lead over Villegas, who with the win rose from 25th to second in the FedEx Cup’s scoring system, is 10,601 points. So by virtue of a mere 101 points, all FedEx Cup pursuers are hereby declared null and void.
Which brings us to FedEx Cup Defining Moment Number 2, which came during the winner’s press conference. Villegas, 26, gladly talked about the hard work he’s put in during his three years on Tour, his college career at Florida (he broke Chris DiMarco’s record for wins, with eight) and growing up in Colombia. He discussed the four-putt green he endured on Saturday and how it wasn’t the turning point of his week: The birdies he bounced back with on the next two holes were. He also admitted taking a cue from Singh about putting. Vijay attributed his recent revival on the greens to telling himself he’s a great putter. Villegas tried to do likewise. Not coincidentally, he ranked first in putting for the week at Bellerive and on Sunday had a stretch of seven consecutive one-putt greens.
Then Villegas was asked if it was disappointing that he tied for third at the Deutsche Bank Championship (at which Singh won after a closing 63) and won at Bellerive but can’t take the FedEx Cup as long as Vijay simply finishes four rounds in Atlanta. Villegas put on a solemn face. “We don’t want to talk about the FedEx Cup, do we?” he asked plaintively.
Let’s see, the FedEx Cup winner doesn’t want to talk about the FedEx Cup. Neither does the BMW Championship winner. The intensity of FedEx Cup buzzkill is apparently at Category 4 strength.
This year’s FedEx Cup was supposed to be the improved model. The points system was smartly altered to create more volatility (there was almost none last year) and, hence, excitement during the four playoff events. As it turned out, though, back-to-back wins by Singh, at the Barclays and Deutsche Bank, were simply too much for anyone else to overcome. Woods’s magnificence carried the playoffs last year, but this year’s edition is a dud. The FedEx Cup is 1-1 for its first two years.
Many players, such as Villegas, think the Cup should favor a player’s seasonlong performance, and point to British Open and PGA winner Padraig Harrington’s elimination from the Tour Championship (after a 55th at Bellerive, he stands 50th overall in the FedEx standings) as an example of what’s wrong with the system. But Harrington, who missed the cut in the first two FedEx Cup events, begs to disagree. He sees the playoffs as a four-week sprint and thinks there should be even more volatility.
“Whether the best 30 players from the season are going to wind up in the Tour Championship is arguable,” says Stewart Cink (who, standing 15th, will be at East Lake). “Probably won’t happen. But the best 30 players from the last three tournaments are going. Does a playoff work in golf? We’re still trying to figure that out.”
The FedEx Cup shouldn’t be changed because Singh won the title early. It should be changed because the needlessly complicated points system is never going to be accepted by the public.
Some options for improving the FedEx Cup:
• Get rid of FedEx Cup points. They’re a stopper. The Tour wants fans to pay attention to the special points list starting in January. When the playoffs begin in August, that list gets junked, scores are reset and a new list begins. So why did we waste time watching the first list? Confusion reigns.
Solution: Simply select the FedEx Cup field (currently starting with 144 players) from the traditional money list.
• Switch to a scoring system we can understand. What happened at Bellerive is what’s wrong with the points system. When Singh finished an hour before the leaders, there were too many variables to know if he had clinched the FedEx Cup title. Having to constantly update projected point totals of 70 players severely undercuts any FedEx Cup race drama.
Solution: Use either money or cumulative scores in relation to par. With money, players reset to zero FedEx Cup dollars and whoever wins the most cash in the FedEx Cup series is the champ. With scores, a player’s overall cumulative score is kept. If Sergio Garcia finishes 10 under in the Barclays, six under at Deutsche Bank and five under at BMW, he’s 21 under. The best score in the playoffs wins.
• Throw out the chaff, keep the wheat. The playoffs should be a reward for those who had the best seasons. So why is the guy ranked 144th allowed to play? He’s not even on pace to keep his card. There should be a race to get into the FedEx Cup.
Solution: Limit FedEx Cup fields to 70 players, who all get to play all four events.
• Woods and No. 2 Phil Mickelson were among the players who opted out of one of four FedEx events last year. Factor in the Bridgestone Invitational, the PGA Championship and the Ryder or the Presidents Cup, and you’re asking the best players to tee it up seven out of nine weeks. That’s not realistic.
Solution: Lose a FedEx Cup event. Make it a three-week series and play them consecutively. Tiger is probably never going to play four FedEx events in one year, anyway.
Acceptance of these solutions is more than just a good idea. It could be the FedEx Cup’s next defining moment.