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How the PGA Tour Gutted Its Own Championship

Don't expect anything like last week's playoff drama, writes Morning Read's John Hawkins, because the Tour has sucked all meaning from an event where the winner might not really be the winner.

Not to play the role of frog in the punchbowl or anything, but that fabulous playoff last Sunday between the Flatstick Maniac and the Brawny Brainiac is a virtual impossibility at this week’s Tour Championship, which has become no more a golf tournament than Bryson DeChambeau is a diplomat.

The most recent changes to the FedEx Cup playoff format (2019) have turned the season finale in Atlanta into a pie-slicing contest. Each of the 30 pastry chefs will be given four days to cut themselves as large a piece of the $60 million dessert as their 14 clubs will allow. The grand-prize recipient gets a quarter of the pie, that $15 million obviously amounting to a truckload of dough, but all 30 contestants leave town fat and happy, certainly chubbier than when they arrived.

There is nothing terribly felonious about turning the last event on the schedule into a game show. There is, however, an illogical downside to this week’s festivities that reflect the defective structure of the entire FedEx Cup playoff formula. Much of it stems from the weighted scoring system used at East Lake. In an attempt to reward recent performance and generate down-the-stretch suspense with stroke allocations, the PGA Tour has managed to further confuse the public and undercut the credibility of its postseason franchise by employing a provision commonly associated with the Tuesday night gathering at your local club.

Tour pros don’t get strokes. Period.

Especially when they’re playing for $60 million.

Alas, we’re talking about a business enterprise more than a sports league, and Camp Ponte Vedra is perfectly willing to adjust its definition of competitive integrity to popularize its product. Why no chance of a duel in Atlanta like that dazzling, Patrick Cantlay-DeChambeau dogfight in Baltimore? Because there is no longer an actual “winner” of the Tour Championship. No trophy is given to the guy who shoots the lowest score over 72 holes. The sole purpose of the event is to shake out the distribution of the aforementioned bonus pool — just a FedEx Cup accessory misguidedly sold to fans as an affair of prestige and relevance.

When a bunch of absurdly rich guys get together and play only for money, does it really matter who walks away with the most fresh loot? Are we supposed to care whether Rory McIlroy pockets another $950,000 (ninth-place payout), or if can he get to $1.9 million by winding up sixth? The numbers involved are from a completely different galaxy, but in terms of sheer substance, how is what happens in Atlanta this week any different from a chunk of the $30 kitty you’re trying to win on Tuesday night or the $5 nassaus you fight so hard for on Saturday morning?

Perhaps Xander Schauffele already knew of the Tour’s Championship’s “decertified” status before he finished three strokes better than anyone in the field last September, then failed to receive credit for his fourth career PGA Tour triumph and the extended privileges that would have accompanied it. Schauffele, by the way, had won the Tour Championship two years earlier. That victory does count in his official total.

Dustin Johnson plays the final round at the 2020 Tour Championship.

Dustin Johnson plays the final round of the 2020 Tour Championship.

The most ridiculous aspect of this clerical contradiction is that Dustin Johnson — a T-3 at East Lake in 2020, four shots behind Schauffele — was recognized as the tournament winner because he’d played well enough to claim the FedEx Cup overall crown. Seriously? A guy picked up his 24th Tour win because he wound up tied for third? Wasn’t the $15 million a big enough prize? How do a bunch of smart men in neckties sit in a boardroom all morning and come up with this stuff?

Can you imagine the volcano that would have erupted if Tiger Woods, who capped his 2018 comeback with a victory at the final Tour Championship before weighted scoring, was informed shortly after triumphantly raising his arms in that he hadn’t won a thing? What defies comprehension is that the Tour basically killed the one event with its own name on it — immediately after Woods turned in the most memorable performance in its 32-year history.

What’s interesting about the diminution of the Tour Championship is that the Official World Golf Ranking recognizes Schauffele, not Johnson, as the 2020 winner. He received first-place points, an unprecedented act of sensible defiance if ever one existed, and though no one really knows (or cares about) how the OWGR works, either, there isn’t a sports organization on earth that should consider itself authorized to alter the tenets of competitive equilibrium simply for the sake of commercial gain.

Or whatever it is the PGA Tour is looking for. What made Cantlay-DeChambeau so awesome wasn’t just the quality of the golf or how long it lasted, but the crowd’s immense reaction to everything they did, especially in sudden-death. The contrasting styles and pronounced swings of momentum. One guy surviving only because of his putter, the other bashing it 50 yards past his opponent and getting nothing out of it. Just a raw and very gutsy battle between two of the game’s best golfers. Two young men who weren’t playing for more FedEx Cup points or better position heading into Atlanta, or even the biggest paycheck, for that matter.

Cantlay and DeChambeau were playing to win. That’s what professional golfers do. When a couple of the wealthiest are trying so hard for that one simple reason, the game radiates a wave of drama no boardroom full of neckties will never quite understand. All the money in Camp Ponte Vedra’s vault isn’t worth half as much as the trophies they hand out Sunday evening.