Five reasons to like the FedEx Cup playoffs

August, 23, 2011

In the United States, football is the unquestioned, unchallenged and unstoppable king of the fall sporting landscape. Take cover, other sports -- it's coming soon (if it hasn't arrived in your town already) to usurp the front page of your website, the bulk of your sports talk radio show and the "A-block" on "SportsCenter."

In the battle to stay relevant post-fourth major, the PGA Tour began the FedEx Cup Playoffs back in 2007. The top 125 players on the PGA Tour qualify for the first round of the postseason this week at the Barclays, with only 100 making it to Week 2, 70 to Week 3 and just the top-30 in the standings reaching Atlanta for the Tour Championship.

Trivia question

Who is the only player with multiple PGA Tour wins in each of the past three seasons? (Answer below)

So five years in, discerning golf fan, are you sold yet? We at Numbers Game certainly are. Here are five reasons -- in no particular order -- that the playoffs are a great thing for the PGA Tour. In our numerically centric fashion, we humbly present why the FedEx Cup gives golf fans a good reason to stay tuned.

• The Wyndham Championship becomes a play-in game.
For multiple-major champions Ernie Els (118th) and Padraig Harrington (124th), last weekend's Wyndham Championship in Greensboro presented a final opportunity to earn a spot in the PGA Tour's postseason. They both took advantage and moved into the top-125 last week, along with rookie William McGirt (125th).

On the other side of the coin, Matt Jones (127th), David Mathis (129th) and Cameron Beckman (130th) missed the cut in Greensboro and, subsequently, the playoffs. Since 2007, 17 players have used the final week of the regular season to earn a spot in the Cup.

Justin Leonard started last week 142nd in the standings, needing a good showing to qualify for the postseason. Leonard missed the top-125 by a single spot in the standings, and as it turns out, a single stroke. He made bogey on the final hole of the tournament, which proved to be the difference between a playoff spot and a four-week vacation from competition.

Before the inception of the playoffs, the only person alive who would have noticed that bogey would have been Leonard himsel. It cost him about $14,000 in last week's earnings alone.

Now? A shot at $10 million goes out the window, and a rookie sneaks into the FedEx Cup fray.

• The whole field is fighting for something.
The "survive and advance" format turns a Sunday early-morning pairing into a battle to stay alive, a mid-morning pairing into a chance to put yourself in position for next week and, for the leaders, an added incentive beyond winning the tournament.

With only 100 of 125 players in this week's field moving on, players such as Ian Poulter (114), Camilo Villegas (109) and Retief Goosen (101) have to play well just to keep their season going. For players in the 10-20 range in the standings (such as this week's defending champion Matt Kuchar, Jason Day or Dustin Johnson) a high finish in Week 1 is essential to keeping realistic hopes alive for winning the $10 million payday at the end of the Tour Championship.

• The best players shine when it means the most.
Only five players have made it to the Tour Championship each year since the FedEx Cup Playoffs began: Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan. An impressive list, for sure.

Of the 16 FedEx Cup Playoff events held, every winner had previously won on the PGA Tour. Combined, the 10 different winners of those tournaments have won 187 times on tour, and more than 250 times worldwide. Five different winners have double-digit career PGA Tour victories.

The average FEC tournament winner has won a staggering 26.0 times on the PGA Tour, and those in the group have a combined total of 22 major championships. Granted, a certain former world's best in red inflates those figures some, but even after taking Tiger Woods out of the equation, those numbers are 15.6 and eight majors won.

• The FedEx Cup champion gives you the best player on tour for the entire year.
In 2010, FedEx Cup Champion Jim Furyk was 11th in the points standings at the conclusion of the regular season. Furyk was the first player in the four-year history of the event to be ranked outside the top five entering the postseason and emerge as the champion.

Players have to play well for the entire season to have a realistic chance of winning the cup. Outside of multiple victories during the four-tournament playoffs, if a player isn't within the top 20 in the points standings when the playoffs start, they aren't going to emerge victorious (despite the points reset following the BMW).

On any given week on the PGA Tour, a player with a hot hand can make his whole season with a victory. In contrast, the playoff system gives more value to the overall performance of the golfer throughout the whole year.

For example, Webb Simpson, with one win and seven top-10 finishes this year, is third in the standings. Mark Wilson, who has just four top-10 finishes but had two victories before March, is 11th. Both have the opportunity to win the FedEx Cup playoffs via their play over the next month, but the more consistent performer this year -- Simpson -- has a leg up on Wilson entering the Barclays.

Trivia answer

Question: Who is the only player with multiple PGA Tour wins in each of the past three seasons?

Answer:Steve Stricker

Three of the four years the playoffs have existed, the winner has also won PGA Tour Player of the Year. The lone exception was in 2008, when Padraig Harrington deservingly won the honor after winning two majors (Vijay Singh won the FedEx Cup after two playoff wins).

Golf's ultimate barometer will always be major championships, but the playoff system provides a champion that takes into account nine months instead of four days.

• You have to earn your spot.
Pure competition. No lifetime exemptions, no sponsor's spots -- the privilege of teeing it up the next four weeks is completely dependent on your performance on the golf course. No one wiggles into the field because of the logo on their bag or shirt. If you're in the top 125 this week, you got there by playing well enough over the course of the entire season.

So are you sold yet?

Let the playoffs begin.

Justin Ray is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He has contributed to ESPN's golf coverage since joining the network out of college in 2008. He is based in Austin, Texas, with the new Longhorn Network. Send comments and suggestions to





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