Time to fix the playoffs -- and here's where to start

ST. LOUIS -- Padraig Harrington sheepishly admitted he got to St. Louis much earlier than expected. While much of the field for the BMW Championship was scrambling to get ready for the third FedEx Cup playoff event after a Monday finish in Boston, Harrington had plenty of time. Too much time.

That's what happens when you miss the cut, and that is why Harrington has become the good-news, bad-news example of the new FedEx Cup playoff format that is now in its third week, at waterlogged Bellerive Country Club.

First-round play was suspended Thursday due to heavy rain, allowing for more time to soak up ideas regarding the second-year playoff format that has far more volatility than its inaugural season.

"I had no idea that it was going to be so severe in the movement from playing good to playing bad," said Hunter Mahan, who admitted he has benefitted from the new system that awards more points at each playoff event. "If you don't play well … you've got Padraig Harrington and you fall like a rock no matter how good your year has been. … I think it would be a real shame if Padraig Harrington, the guy wins two majors and isn't in the Tour Championship."

Harrington, who won the British Open and PGA Championship, started the playoffs in fourth place but has dropped to 44th after missing two consecutive cuts. He needs to be among the top 30 after the BMW in order to advance to the Tour Championship in Atlanta, where the points leader will receive a $10 million bonus.

That doesn't sound good for the system, unless you are of the mind that a true playoff rewards good play and penalizes bad play. And to his credit, Harrington is fine with how it has worked out.

"I actually think I'd be more inclined that if you miss the cut, go home, you're out," said Harrington, who probably needs a top-10 finish in order to advance. "I think I'm in a lucky position that I still have a chance at qualifying. I've missed two cuts, I certainly should be out. I have no problem with that. This is the playoffs. It's four tournaments. It should be judged on the merits of those four tournaments with a little bit of bias to the start of the year. So I like the volatility. I think there could be more volatility in the future."

For all the angst the PGA Tour has endured over the FedEx Cup playoffs, it mostly got this right. Last year's system did not promote enough movement in the playoffs. And if you are going to call them playoffs, you have to take the risk that some players will get eliminated, and others will make big moves with good play.

The problem is the regular season has been relegated to be all but meaningless. When 144 players make it and the last-place qualifier can jump to first with a victory, it creates exciting four-week possibilities but makes playoff positioning all but meaningless.

"That could be a good thing," Phil Mickelson said last week at the Deutsche Bank Championship, "because now we don't have to play as many events if we don't want to."

Surely that statement will get the attention of tour brass, who don't need their stars playing less during the regular season. Whether Mickelson really means it or was trying to send a message was unclear. But he has a point.

To make the regular season more meaningful, fewer players should qualify for the playoffs. To reward players for a strong season, they should not earn as many points for simply making a cut, something that Jim Furyk advocates.

"Volatility is good, but I think we're rewarding mediocrity," he said. "Cuts-made bothers me. Making a cut isn't anything to be proud of, in my opinion. Playing well, finishing fifth, now there's something to be proud of."

The best example of this is illustrated by Paul Casey, who tied for seventh at the Barclays and then missed the cut at the Deutsche Bank. He earned 3,455 points at the Barclays, none at the Deutsche Bank. Had he finished 70th both weeks, he would have made 4,196 points.

That part of the system obviously has to be addressed.

"I would say the structure of the playoffs, we like what we've seen," said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. "I know there's some consternation about a player like Padraig Harrington, wins two majors, top 10, missed two cuts and he's in danger of not getting to Atlanta.

"But that's actually what we heard from a lot of fans that they wanted to see. They wanted it to feel more like a playoff, more like a do-or-die situation, and we just moved the needle a little bit in that regard, and so there is more volatility. That means on the upside and the downside. I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. It's something to look at."

If the tour does make some tweaks, here are a couple of simple solutions. First, limit the playoff field to 100 instead of 144 while allowing a full field of players in each of the three playoff events, meaning there would be a cut each week. Those outside of the top 100 could still compete to win the tournament but would not be eligible for the FedEx Cup.

Then whittle the playoff field down to 80, 60 and 30.

"You can't have 144 guys starting," Mahan said. "They don't let every team in the playoffs, they cut it down pretty good."

Then award more points for top-10 finishes, fewer points for simply making the cut. "I would make this week more volatile than the first two weeks," Harrington said.

No tweaks could stymie someone if he wins every week, so the tour cannot help it that for the second year in a row, one player has all but drained the competition of drama. Last year it was Tiger Woods, who as it turned out, could have skipped two of the four playoff events and still won the Cup.

This year, it is Vijay Singh, who has won the first two playoff events and "has to fall off the stairs or something" according to Sergio Garcia, not to win. According to the tour, Singh can clinch the title this week with a second-place finish, as long as Garcia or third-place Mike Weir does not win.

Even if Singh were to finish dead last -- and earn more than 2,000 points -- he would clinch the title if someone from outside the top 24 won and Garcia finished worse than sixth, Weir worse than third and Justin Leonard ended up third or worse.

Still, there is big bonus money to earn based on where players finish in the final standings.

"Obviously, if you play well out here, a lot of things take care of themselves," said Steve Stricker. "So you just need to go out and take care of your business."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.