On the whole, the swells who run the PGA Tour must be quite pleased with the way the first year of the rest of their lives has gone.
When the Tour launched this season with a schedule re-jiggering that had been many years in the making, its leaders wouldn’t have dared dream that Tiger Woods would manage a late-Sunday charge to win the Masters for his first major win in more than a decade, and a signature moment in a sport that has not had a lot of them in recent years.
That was followed by the romp to victory of Brooks Koepka at the PGA Championship, where he won his fourth major in a relatively short span and asserted himself as the unofficial best player in the world. He was runner-up at the U.S. Open and finished fourth at the Open Championship last weekend, and the whole thing sets up the possibility of a tantalizing Brooks-Tiger showdown at the next major.
Which, unfortunately, happens in a little less than nine months from now.
This was always going to be the tricky part of the Tour’s revamped schedule, and now it is staring them in the face. By moving the PGA Championship into May and having the major-championship season end overseas in the middle of July, the Tour now finds itself with a yawning gap between tournaments that casual golf fans care about. Even Koepka himself, with his delightful gives-zero-fudges attitude, has said that he doesn’t particularly care if he wins events that are not majors. And now he has until April before he has to worry about one.
Koepka has said that he doesn’t particularly care if he wins events that are not majors
The idea was to get the FedEx Cup, which now begins in two weeks, away from the competition of football season, but while an interesting leaderboard at the PGA Championship would have drawn wide interest in golf in mid-August, it’s a much less certain bet that people will pay much attention to what is happening at the Northern Trust Open, the FedEx Cup starter that has taken the PGA’s old slot on the calendar.
One of the main reasons that interest in the FedEx Cup is uncertain is that Woods has all but disappeared after his heroic feats at Augusta National in April. He missed the cut at the PGA and again last week at the Open in Northern Ireland, and in between finished in a tie for 21st at the U.S. Open. That’s result was respectable enough, although Woods was +4 for the tournament while standing on the seventh tee on Sunday; he closed with six birdies on his final 12 holes to shoot up the leaderboard.
Since that win at the Masters, the one that spawned all kinds of talk about his renewed pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors, and whether he could again become the player who had once put all of golf on his shoulders, Woods has played four tournaments in three months. He missed two cuts, and his cumulative score to par over those four tournaments is exactly par. So, not so hot. He could yet find the form that would inject some life into the end of the PGA Tour’s season, but it won’t be this week, since he is skipping the event in Memphis, now rebranded as a World Golf Championships event.
And so, whatever momentum the Tour hopes to get from the remainder of its season will have to come from the FedEx Cup, itself overhauled this year for the 78th time in another attempt to make people care about it.
I am, as you have probably guessed by now, skeptical.
The new scoring system will put a huge premium on the first two “playoff” events, the Northern Trust Open and the BMW Championship, awarding quadruple the FedEx Cup points that were available for a regular-season win. The FedEx standings could change dramatically over those two tournaments, particularly if the wins go to players who currently sit some distance down the chart. Whatever happens in those weeks will set up the playoff finale at the Tour Championship, which this year will played with a system called — honestly, this is what it is called — FedEx Cup Starting Strokes. The FedEx leader going into the final event will begin the tournament at 10-under, the second-place player will begin at 8-under and the advantage will be lower and lower for the remainder of the 30-player field. Pour one out for the poor television announcers who will have to keep explaining that someone who is even-par for the tournament is also 7-under for the tournament because of their allotted FedEx Cup Starting Strokes. Why, that doesn’t sound contrived at all!
If the Tour Championship started this week, Woods, 27th in the FedEx standings, would begin the tournament 10 shots back of Koepka. I would not love Tiger’s chances.
As much as all of this sounds goofy, the new system would be bailed out if a couple of the game’s stars — Koepka and Rory? DJ and Rickie? — end up waging a Sunday battle for the Tour Championship and the US$15-million bonus prize money that comes with it.
But that has always been the hope for this FedEx thing, and in a dozen years of awarding it, its list of memorable moments remains vanishingly small. Bill Haas hit a shot out of water once. That was fun.
No, the PGA Tour season isn’t over yet. It just feels like it.