This Labor Day, the compacted PGA 2019-2020 season culminated at the FedEx Cup Tour Championship, an event that was originally scheduled for a mid-August finish. Despite the shortened schedule, a worthy champion in Dustin Johnson was crowned the victor. Johnson went on a torrid 1st-2nd-1st-run in the playoffs; however, his “win” at the Tour Championship, while well-deserved, was not an authentic win as Johnson entered the week with a lead ranging from 2 to 10 shots against the rest of the field.
This is the nature of the new format the PGA Tour implemented for the first time in 2019, where the thirty-man field begins with a staggered leaderboard before a single stroke is made. This year, Dustin Johnson led the FedEx Cup Standings heading into East Lake Golf Club where the Tour Championship is held; therefore, he started the week at 10-under par. Justin Thomas, who was in the same leading position last year, described the very unique leaderboard structure earlier in the week:
“I don’t really know how to describe it … It just was different. You never get to the first fairway with the lead or you’re never putting your ball on the tee in the ground on Thursday … with the lead. It’s just something that doesn’t happen.” - Justin Thomas
While Thomas faltered to a T-3 finish, Johnson took advantage of the new format and ended his season claiming another trophy with a three-shot victory. However, his 11-under par net score over four rounds would only have come in second to Xander Schauffele’s 15-under score.
Under the old FedEx Cup format, the Tour Championship started with an even leaderboard, and there were two trophies up for grabs: one for having the lowest score over four rounds at East Lake and the more coveted FedEx Cup trophy, awarded to the player who accumulated the most FedEx Cup points throughout the season. Dustin Johnson still would have claimed the FedEx Cup, but Xander Schauffele would have won the Tour Championship.
During the week of the Tour Championship, the old format required continuous updates to the projected leaderboard of the FedEx Cup as players moved up and down the actual leaderboard. This calculation-heavy structure arguably presented confusion and weakened the fan experience which is why the PGA Tour decided to adopt a more straightforward approach where there is only one tournament.
However, the tournament within a tournament feel that was the FedEx Cup is what made the tournament exciting. Furthermore, the animated tabulations of the FedEx Cup points, most notably performed by Golf Channel’s Steve Sans, added much to the allure of the event, almost akin to the last week of the NFL regular season where a win or loss by one team could play critically into the playoff hopes of another.
Reckoning back to 2016 when Rory McIlRoy won his first FedEx Cup title, Dustin Johnson was on the outside looking in while McIlroy, Kevin Chappell, and Ryan Moore competed in a sudden-death playoff. If either Chappell or Moore were victorious, Johnson would have been the FedEx Cup winner. Instead, McIlroy dashed those hopes with a memorable 20-foot, winning birdie putt on East Lake’s 16th hole and the fourth hole of the playoff. The possibility of those alternative endings magnified the intrigue during the playoff.
The most significant sacrifice of the PGA Tour’s new format is that it essentially eliminates two-thirds of the already only thirty-man field. The bottom 20 players start the week at least 7 shots back, making it very difficult to get back into contention. Granted, the old format presented equally unlikely odds for players with low FedEx Cup rankings to win the Cup. However, they still had a fair chance to win the Tour Championship, giving them something realistic for which to play.
The more players there are with a chance to win entering the week, the more likely it is that there will be an array of players vying for the title over the closing back nine which always provides for a riveting finish.
The 2018 Tour Championship in many ways solidified Tiger Woods’ successful comeback, provided a historic moment as Tiger was swarmed by thousands of cheering fans on his walk to 18th green, and just provided that feel good feeling associated with triumphs of the human spirit. Tiger’s win of the Tour Championship still could take place despite Justin Rose possessing the most FedEx Cup points and winning the FedEx Cup.
A year later under the current format, this incredible event would not have happened. Instead, while Rose would still have been the winner of the FedEx Cup, Tiger would have only captured a T-2 finish which would have been impressive, but the excitement would have been dwarfed in comparison to what we were fortunate enough to experience. That in itself is why the FedEx Cup was better under a strictly points-based system.
Whether the tour will return to the old format is unclear, and it is probably too early to tell. After all, it took 12 years before a decision was made to switch to the new staggered leaderboard format. Hopefully, though, the change will be made and be made soon.