The Fed-Ex Cup: Added Excitement, or the Creation of a Decidedly Unlevel Playing Field?

By Nick Bonfield

‘Golf’, you hear murmured, ‘it’s boring and pointless. I don’t see the attraction of hitting a little white ball around a field.’ A point of view that is incredulously naive, and yet a point of view that, for too long, has plagued the game and hampered its elevation to the top tier of the most consumable sports. Take football, for example. Just a group of people kicking a white ball around a field. Or not. Consensus condemns this point of view as wholly inaccurate. Sadly for golf, wide scale rejection of its most simple description has not come to fruition, leaving senior officials and Tour organisers with the task of harnessing increased interest and making golf more accessible to the general public. A fundamental change of attitude and rejection of inaccurate notions are required, not a multimillion dollar, premature conclusion to an entire season that rewards timing over consistency; that holds temporary form in higher regard than sustained form over an extended period of time.

I am talking, of course, about the Fed-Ex Cup, announced in 2005 and launched in the 2007 season. The system received widespread criticism
in its first two years, most notably in 2008, when Vijay Singh had accumulated enough points after the BMW Championship to extract all the excitement from the Tour Championship. However, the tweaks and changes made over the past couple of years have led to its overall acceptance, with many now echoing the sentiments of PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem in September 2009: “As long as it is exciting.” The questions remain: is it more exciting than the old end to the season? Probably, yes. Is it more exciting to regular viewers of the PGA Tour? Perhaps a little. (Those predisposed to the joys, fascinations and excitements of golf are still likely to find those qualities in abundance, regardless of format or remuneration.) Has it attracted new viewers? Barely. Is it fair? No. Is that irrelevant if it is exciting? No.

An article by Doug Ferguson, journalist for Yahoo Sports, recently grabbed my attention. Specifically, the affirmation that “It doesn’t determine the best player of the year. It isn’t a major.” Then why, on earth, would the regular season be cut short to cater for an overhyped, over remunerated series of events that culminate in the frankly artificial awarding of the Fed-Ex Cup trophy? Ask Bill Haas if he really feels he deserves the Fed-Ex Cup. Ask him if the trophy or the victory at East Lake means more to him. Ask him if he was fully aware of his position as he stepped out to take on Hunter Mahan in a play-off. We are now left in a ludicrous position whereby the winner of the Fed-Ex cup is nowhere near the current leader of the money list, Luke Donald. It leads to the question: what is more respected: winning the Fed-Ex Cup, or winning the money list? The answer should be a simple one, but it is not. The winner of the money list, the easiest way of determining who has been the best and most consistent player of the year, has paled into insignificance, to be held in lower esteem than the player who performs well over a four week stretch where points are, inexplicably, worth 5 times more than in the regular season.

We all understand the motives behind the Fed-Ex cup. Golf is still viewed by many as a dull, insignificant sport, and even the most avid opponent
of the new system cannot deny that, for the neutral, it is more appealing. But is that enough to persuade an American Football fan to switch over to the golf on a Sunday afternoon? In 2009, when Mickleson and Woods were battling it out down the stretch, 4.544 million viewers were tuned it. This figure was 1.967m this year and a lowly 1.438m in 2010. In reality, those that watch golf do so because of a fundamental interest in and passion for the game. The European Tour’s ‘Every Shot Imaginable’ is an extremely creative marketing campaign, aimed at highlighting the immense skill and tremendous ability possessed by every professional golfer. Campaigns like these will help to attract new golf fans, and the recent phenomenon of the youthful, gigantic hitter will help to shake the stereotype of a tedious, drab game played by pensioners. Let skill do the talking, not an unfair and unjust system that essentially brings the PGA Tour to a premature end. It is almost unfathomable that Luke Donald, a man with an unbelievable 13 top 10s, 15 top 25s and one victory during the 2011 regular season, finished below Bill Haas, who had 7 top 10s, 12 top 25s and 1 victory; that Brandt Snedeker, who had 7 top 10s, 14 top 25s and one victory, finished two places behind Justin Rose, who had 5 top 10s, 12 top 25s and also one victory. Desired results, in terms of viewership, have not been achieved, leaving a flawed system that disrupts the natural course of the season. Yes, September was previously a month more renowned for weaker fields, but that is part and parcel of a long season. Strategy and schedule management are key elements in golf, and should be recognised as such.

Let us consider the statistics and the field this week. Bill Haas is 7th in the money list and Luke Donald is first, with an enormous 1.7 million dollars in earnings between the two. And yet, when we look back on the season, what will be more prevalent in our memory? The image of the winner of the money list, who may or may not be appearing at the Childrens Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, or the image of an ecstatic Bill Haas holding the Fed-Ex Cup on the 18th green of one of the most famous courses in world golf? The mindset of the professionals themselves can also be inferred from the field this week at the McGladrey Classic, the penultimate event of the Fall Series. Only three of the top 10 on the money list are making an appearance. Even Nick Watney, who has a legitimate chance of winning the title, has elected not to play. Why, you might ask? The answer is simple. The Fall Series, in reality, is a battle to get into the top 125 on the money list. It is not a desperate jostling for position and overall standing based on season-long performance. The money list is no longer the yardstick against which the success or failure of a season is measured. The Fed-Ex Cup has taken care of that.

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4 Comments

  1. I have to say I thought Bill Haas winning the FedEx Cup was a massively strange thing to happen and surely not what the PGA Tour wanted when they started the event. For me, the FedEx Cup has become a bit of a ball and chain for the PGA Tour. They keep trying to tweak it, but for the last couple of years with Furyk then Haas winning, it’s just not working.

  2. What are your suggestions for the future? Scrap or modify?

  3. Anders

    I for one think it adds more intrigue to the 125 positioning and wish that the fall series were more heavily marketed.
    What can be more intriguing than a guy fighting for his job next year?

    • I don’t think it adds more intrigue to the 125, given the discrepancy between FEC points and money awarded. And if the fall series was marketed as the exiciting end to the regular season, we would still have the intrigue of watching guys fighting for their job. Thanks for commenting

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