FedEx Cup Rule Changes Make Playoffs Easier (for Fans)

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The FedEx Cup playoffs have a well-deserved reputation for confusing golf fans, if not all sports fans.

Complicated points totals, unorthodox standings and the mystifying image of two winners at the event’s conclusion — one for the final tournament and the other for the overall playoffs — has only buttressed the public’s puzzlement.

This year’s FedEx Cup playoffs have been streamlined to eradicate some of that befuddlement and make for a more TV-friendly serial. The event is still convoluted, but much less so. Still, that doesn’t mean that the champion left standing will be the golfer with the lowest score in the last of the three tournaments. It does mean that there definitely will not be two smiling winners posing with awards afterward. The little bit of math to get there shouldn’t be too distracting for those tuning into the television broadcast.

The first thing to understand about the new FedEx Cup playoffs, which begin Thursday with the opening round of the Northern Trust at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J., is that the competition is now only three weeks long and ends before the college and N.F.L. seasons start in earnest, which is hardly a coincidence. The FedEx Cup playoffs used to be four events and end on a Sunday in late September.

The second major change: like a wild-card team in the baseball or football playoffs, getting hot in the postseason is now what matters most, not performance before the playoffs.

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In a third twist, the payout for winning has jumped 50 percent to $15 million. Even coolheaded, well-heeled golfers with lucrative endorsements get sweaty and nervous when playing for $15 million.

The players generally approve of the revised arrangement.

“We are trying to make the system perfect,” said Tiger Woods, a two-time FedEx Cup champion. “We are trying to make it great for all of us. NASCAR didn’t get it right the first time around. They made a few adjustments, and we are doing the same thing.”

Rory McIlroy, the 2016 FedEx Cup champion, agreed.

“It simplifies it for us and we know where we stand,” McIlory said, “and it simplifies it for the people who are watching it on TV.”

O.K., now for the particulars. The field this week in New Jersey includes 122 golfers who compiled the highest point totals from the season-long FedEx Cup standings — winning a standard PGA Tour event, for example, was worth 500 points. The top 125 players qualified but three pulled out.

P.G.A. Championship winner Brooks Koepka tops the standings with 2,887 points but that is not as meaningful as it once was because this year, the winners of the first two playoff events earn a whopping 2,000 points each. That means that Phil Mickelson, currently ranked 34th with 903 points, could leap past Koepka with a victory this weekend, at least in theory.

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You get the idea. The standings can flip in a hurry and there are plenty of top golfers poised to make a run at Koepka. McIlroy is ranked second and Matt Kuchar is third. United States Open champion Gary Woodland is fifth and 20-time tour winner Dustin Johnson is seventh.

At the conclusion of the Northern Trust, only the top 70 golfers in the FedEx Cup standings will qualify for the next event, the BMW Championship outside Chicago on Aug. 15-18. After that tournament, the top 30 in the standings advance to the final round of the playoffs at the Tour Championship, which takes place in Atlanta Aug. 22-25.

The Tour Championship is the tournament that Woods, amid much fanfare, won last year for his first PGA Tour victory in five years. And after that accomplishment, Woods, commemorative silver putter in hand, stood for one of those baffling pictures alongside Justin Rose, who hoisted the shiny FedEx Cup for having amassed the most overall playoff points.

But Woods, 28th in this year’s FedEx standings, and Rose, 11th, cannot both be victorious on Aug. 25 because the scoring system for the final event has, thankfully, been changed. For this year’s Tour Championship, there will be a staggered, handicapped start — picture a track race where some runners are allowed to begin in front of other competitors. In this case, the golfer leading the FedEx Cup standings after the BMW Championship will begin the Tour Championship at 10-under par. The player with the second most points will start the tournament at 8-under par, the third-ranked player will be at 7-under, and so on until the golfers ranked between 26th and 30th start at even par.

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Once the event begins, it is no longer about FedEx Cup points. Instead, the goal is to finish the four rounds with the lowest score compared to par, including whatever advantage was gained by the staggered start. The Tour Championship winner will also be the FedEx Cup winner. That does, however, leave open the possibility that someone might register the lowest stroke total for 72 holes at the event but not be the lowest player compared to par because he started farther back.

Tough luck. Somebody else will be the new 2019 FedEx champion, waving a $15 million check over his head.

If that were to happen, as a consolation, tournament officials could let that golfer with the lowest stroke total sidle into a picture with the playoff champ. But it’s not likely. Not this year, too confusing.

Karen Crouse contributed reporting.



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