The FedEx Cup Playoffs are upon us, earlier than ever, with one fewer event and far more money at stake — and an intriguing and controversial way to end the competition.
Now in its 13th year, the FedEx Cup — which is a season-long points race that concludes with a series of playoff tournaments — has undergone its share of changes since its inception in 2007, most notably tweaks to the points structure.
But this year brings the biggest changes yet: an early conclusion, by nearly a month, a reduction in tournaments from four to three, an increase in the bonus payout to the winner from $10 million to $15 million (and from $35 million to $60 million overall) and a big difference at the Tour Championship, which will see just one winner crowned, the overall FedEx Cup champion.
The playoffs begin this week at the Northern Trust at Liberty National in Jersey City, New Jersey, for the third time. The first event has typically moved around the New York area, but starting this year it will alternate between New York and the TPC of Boston — hence the reduction from four tournaments to three. Next year the event will move to the home of the former Deutsche Bank Championship.
The BMW Championship is Aug. 15-18 at Medinah Country Club outside of Chicago. This will be the first visit to Medinah, which has a long history in the game, including the 2012 Ryder Cup won by Europe, the 2006 and 1999 PGA Championships won by Tiger Woods, and three U.S. Opens. Before becoming the BMW Championship in 2007, the event was known as the Western Open — which was played three times at Medinah. BMW is ending its sponsorship after this year, so the PGA Tour looks to have a new one in place when the event is scheduled to be played at Olympia Fields Country Club in 2020.
The Tour Championship returns to its home at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Aug. 22-25. This has been the anchor to the FedEx Cup playoffs since its inception. But unlike past years, there is no longer a possibility for two winners. The winner of the tournament (with its new strokes-based format) is the FedEx Cup champion.
Players have been earning points all season, with 500 going to the winners of regular events, 550 to the winners of World Golf Championship events and 600 to the winners of the major championships and Players Championship, with subsequent decreases through those making the cut. Players in opposite-field events earned 300 points for a victory.
Brooks Koepka leads the way with 2,887 points, but a significant increase in points at the first two playoff events make his spot at the top far from secure. Instead of 500 points for a victory, the winner of a playoff event gets 2,000 points, meaning those who prevail the next two weeks will find themselves right in the mix for the overall title. (Think of a wild-card team in baseball barely making the postseason, winning its one-game playoff and now being among the final eight teams.)
Unlike past years, there will be no points reset at the Tour Championship, where the new format erases the need to track points.
The top 125 in FedEx points through the Wyndham Championship qualify for the Northern Trust, which will have a 36-hole cut. Only 122 are teeing it up, as Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson and Sam Burns elected not to enter. Unlike years past, where the top 100 advanced to the second playoff event, now just the top 70 advance — as there are just three events instead of four. The top 70 after the Northern Trust qualify for the BMW Championship — where there will be no cut — with the top 30 then going to the Tour Championship.
The bubble boys
At 85th in the standings, Stenson had some work to do in order to qualify for the BMW, but by skipping the Northern Trust, his PGA Tour season is now complete. Jordan Spieth (at 69th) finds himself barely qualifying for the BMW and in need of a couple of good weeks to avoid missing the Tour Championship for the second consecutive year. Bubba Watson (71st) needs to at least make the cut to assure a spot at the BMW.
Then there is Tiger Woods, who finds himself needing to play well in at least one of the next two events to assure himself a spot in the Tour Championship — which he won last year. Woods, who was 13th in the points following his Masters victory, has dropped to 28th, precariously close to falling out of the top 30. That’s because he’s played just four times since the Masters and earned points only twice, at the Memorial (T-9) and U.S. Open (T-21). Last year, Woods mostly treaded water through the playoffs and entered the Tour Championship 20th in points.
Others of note with some work to do to get to Atlanta: Sergio Garcia (65), Ian Poulter (60), Graeme McDowell (55), Patrick Reed (50), Billy Horschel (44), Jason Day (40), Jim Furyk (39) and Phil Mickelson (34).
Zach Johnson failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the series began in 2007. That means only nine are left who have made it to the playoffs each year: Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Charley Hoffman, Charles Howell III, Ryan Moore, Brandt Snedeker, Watson, Justin Rose and Adam Scott.
The bonus pool
In addition to prize money at each of the first two events, which will have purses of $9.25 million, with $1.65 million going to the winner, there is a $60 million bonus pool at stake, up from $35 million since 2007. There will be no separate purse at the Tour Championship as it now determines the winner of the FedEx Cup and the subsequent payouts through 30 places. The winner receives $15 million, up from $10 million.
Second place earns $5 million, 10th place $830,000 and 30th place gets $395,000. The bonus payouts continue all the way through the 150th spot in the standings — the last 25 don’t even qualify for the playoffs but receive $70,000.
The Tour Championship
The biggest change to the FedEx Cup Playoffs comes at the final tournament, and it might take some getting used to. Instead of a tournament that pays a separate purse, awards prize money and points, and then subsequently determines the FedEx Cup champion, it will crown a single champion — but based on a staggered start the tour is calling “starting strokes.”
Based on the FedEx Cup standings through the BMW Championship, the No. 1 player in points will start the Tour Championship at minus-10, with No. 2 starting at minus-8, No. 3 at minus-7, No. 4 at minus-6 and No. 5 at minus-5. Players 6-10 will be at minus-4, 11-15 at minus-3, 16-20 at minus-2, 21-25 at minus-1 and 26-30 will start at even par.
So think of the first-round leaderboard being set based on previous rounds — or the entire season leading to that point.
Under the current points standings, Koepka would start the Tour Championship with a two-shot lead over Rory McIlroy and a three-shot advantage over Matt Kuchar. Woods, who is 27th, would begin at even par, 10 shots back.
It’s like a tournament with a handicap system, although those in the best position have the advantage. The winner will be credited with an official PGA Tour victory — even if he didn’t shoot the lowest 72-hole score — although Official World Ranking points will be determined based on the 72-hole scores.
The tour said it ran thousands of computer simulations to best approximate the difference between points and strokes heading into the Tour Championship. The thought is that following a scoreboard based on strokes under par is far easier for fans and competitors than the various points permutations that occurred previously.
The problem is obvious: A player who shoots the lowest 72-hole score could very well win nothing but a higher spot in the standings. Were this system in place last year, Tiger Woods — who finished second overall in the FedEx Cup to Justin Rose — would not have earned his 80th PGA Tour title.