The Tour Championship’s new format: Engaging or Enraging?

As a racing enthusiast, the PGA Tour’s new system for their series finale has encouraged me to take a closer look at the world of golf.

For those unfamiliar, the Tour Championship is now staggered to reward those who have performed to their best at crucial points during the season. The leader of the season-long FedEx Cup, which dishes out points depending on the strength and necessity of the tournament, starts at the top of the leaderboard while the chasing pack have to close over the course of the four days.

This ensures it is more transparent as to who has claimed victory. Last season, Tiger Woods, before his emotional Masters triumph, claimed the tournament win at East Lake to crown an incredible comeback. However, for those watching without guidance, he had not triumphed in the overall FedEx Cup. He had too many points to make up on eventual winner Justin Rose, who had finished in a share of fourth at this particular event.

The new format does away with confusion. If you are at the top of the East Lake leaderboard at the end of the week, you have won both the tournament and the FedEx Cup. No need for calculators to tally cumulative points and determine whether victory is enough given so-and-so is in fifth place.

As such, Justin Thomas, the FedEx Cup’s leader, begins the week at -10 and holds a two shot advantage from the off. The impetus on those behind is immediately to chase, which should, in theory make things more exciting. Second place begins at -8, third at -7, and so on until sixth position. Those between six and ten in the standings will start at -4, 11-15 at -3, 16-20 at -2, 21-25 at -1 and 26-30 at even par, just as they would an ordinary week. Only the top 30 qualify for a position in the field at East Lake and those who have snuck in must work even harder for the $15 million (yes, 15 million) prize money for the champion.

The format works like a handicap would in racing, which enthrals me immediately. It’s a slightly crooked handicap: for example, Brooks Koepka, the no.1 player in the world, starts in third with only three shots to make up, whereas, in a handicapper’s paradise, he’d be at the bottom of the pyramid having to forge his way up.

Koepka’s position in the standings raises two issues. The first being that the likes of Charles Howell III and Jason Kokrak, who just about qualified and must open their first rounds at level par, are almost out of the equation for victory from the beginning. With the greatest of respect, it is doubtful they can make up seven shots on the world’s current best, let alone any number of shots on 25 of the 30-strong field.

Psychologically, there is a negative impact on those who between 26th and 30th in the FedEx standings. Last year, though they would have been up against it to claim overall victory, the journey to do so would have felt less daunting, with a simple, overall triumph being all they could do to get close, or, with luck falling their way, win the Cup themselves. This year, the tax of closing ten shots may appear insurmountable from the very first tee.

The second problem with Koepka’s position is that he has been indisputably golf’s best player of the year and yet he is only third. He has won three times, twice on tour alongside his major triumph in the PGA. Thomas, atop the standings, has won just once, that being this weekend at the BMW Championship.

Once again, the uninitiated can only be baffled by this bizarre arrangement. The BMW is a prestigious tournament, but no major and it is the only title Thomas has claimed in the 2018/19 season. Yet, because it is a FedEx Cup playoff event, the points awarded are far greater than in a regular season event, or even a major title, in order to encourage competition for the final few spots in the field and to continue form throughout the year.

Nevertheless, there is an awkward skew and the likes of Matt Kuchar and Rory Mcilroy, who have played admirably and consistently since the beginning of the year, find themselves adrift of Patrick Reed, who has only won one event, like Thomas, in the playoffs, and Patrick Cantlay, whose runner-up finish to Thomas promoted him to second in the FedEx Cup. This is clearly unfair and the playoffs, at least, don’t seem necessary.

This alone does not diminish the Tour Championship’s format, however, although the aforementioned psychological effects are even more intriguing when it comes to scoring. Some players thrive upon protecting leads: Thomas, for instance, has won seven of the ten tournaments he has won when holding a lead going into the final round. Others, meanwhile, enjoy the thrill of the chase, hunting down those boasting a lead by playing aggressive golf.

If you are one of those at -1 or -2, say, you have to go out and attack pins, wherever they are positioned, from the outset in order to claw back the artificial deficit. If this does not suit your game, or if you make an early mistake, you can almost be ruled out from the very start, which potentially lowers the competition before it has even really begun.

Alternatively, those from -5 upwards may consider approaching the opening stages more conservatively in the knowledge that they have been blessed with an advantage. Again, this could work negatively for someone like Rory Mcilroy, who is at his best when asserting from the outset.

As long as Thomas does not get away too quickly, the handicap-esque format could prove a hugely exciting watch. It could, however, lead to a spread-eagled field and drama involving only a handful of players. It is a grand idea, though and I hope for the PGA’s sake that it is a success.

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