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The FedEx Cup Is the PGA Tour's Turn in the Summer of Cash—Are You Excited?

This week marks the 16th edition of the Tour's postseason and golf fans are still lukewarm to the concept. John Hawkins can understand why.
FedExCup signage is seen at the 2020 Tour Championship.

During a PGA Tour season you won't hear much about what players earn on the course, but for the next three weeks you'll hear plenty about the FedEx Cup's $75 million prize pool. 

Pro golf’s universe has been fractured, trophies have succumbed to money as the game’s primary competitive motivator, and guess what? It’s time for the FedEx Cup playoffs! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the original cash grab—owned, operated and rammed down our throats all year by none other than the PGA Tour—is back with even bigger numbers and lesser conscience, owing to the premise that a rival constituency has emerged with an ostentatious knockoff of the same shameless design.

Silly is what silly does.

Before former commissioner Tim Finchem’s little postseason lottery made its debut in 2007, players had to win a lot of tournaments to become unconditionally wealthy. Ninety percent of them had little or no chance of making history, but it was pretty cool to try. With greed and grandeur as steadfast allies, Camp Ponte Vedra devised a postseason format that bore a striking resemblance to the one hatched by NASCAR a few years earlier.

Imitation and flattery. Don’t think for a minute that copycats aren’t laughing at least halfway to the bank.

Never had the Tour been so driven, or obsessed, to produce prodigious fiscal rewards for its membership. Not just the top-tier performers, but every rank-and-file guy with full-time status, which is why all 125 still qualify for the sprint to the finish line. It didn’t make sense, but who’s going to stand up at a Policy Board meeting and announce they’re not worthy of $18 million for one hot month with the putter?

So there. The FedEx Cup playoffs aren’t much different from LIV Golf. Money for nothing, and the ride is free.

If the road to hell was paved with good intentions, the highway to financial prosperity isn’t exactly cluttered with potholes. The FedEx Cup has failed in its mission to stimulate serious golf fans, much less pique any form of tangible mainstream interest. Its emphasis on boatloads of cash is made farcically amusing by the Tour’s obvious attempts to “hide” its season-long money list from public view, lest Joe Sixpack think those guys are ridiculously overpaid.

It’s all part of Camp Ponte Vedra’s marketing/branding strategy, which is where television comes in. The postseason derby was created with a TV audience in mind—let’s give them something unpredictable and full of Sunday suspense, with volatile movement in the overall standings and that ever-appealing underdog factor. The whole shebang, you might say, and it looked pretty good in theory, but what the Tour never grasped was the honest-to-goodness reason it could stage such an extravaganza.

Tiger Woods. The best breadwinner any sport could ask for. He turned Finchem’s operation into a monolithic empire, which ushered it to esteemed status with corporate partners and greatly increased its TV value. It also tricked the home office into thinking the product itself was growing immensely. Actually it was Tiger doing all the heavy lifting and becoming the most famous athlete on earth. Everybody else was just an ant at the picnic.

Never mind that the Tour Championship once sufficed nicely as a year-end dollar dash. The event is still held the final week of the season, but as the last leg of the playoffs instead of a standalone, which makes it a 72-hole walk to the bakery so everyone can grab their slice of the $75 million bonus pie. Inconsistency and confusion have been vital contributors to the FedEx Cup formula since its inception. For all the commercial airtime devoted to promoting the franchise, there’s simply no reason to believe it has served any purpose other than for viewers to get up and grab another beer.

Last year’s TV ratings were unconscionably low: 2.3 for the final round in Atlanta, slightly lower than a 2.4 the year before and nowhere close to the 3.7 Woods’ victory generated in 2018. After a dismal 1.4 showing in 2017, current commish Jay Monahan surely became bullish on shifting his postseason to August, where all three events would dodge football telecasts and give the Tour a clearer assessment of where the product stood.

The news hasn’t been good. Although the PGA Championship’s relocation to May did lead to better dates, the playoffs have been a profound disappointment despite meager competition from opposing networks. Those August ratings look very similar to the numbers it compiled against the SEC or NFL. Really no different from those at a standard Tour event with a decent field.

Woods’ triumph in ‘18 produced the usual spike, a common occurrence since "Hello World," but if a project of this magnitude can’t fly high without the help of one guy, it’s difficult to imagine it ever gaining altitude. Changes are on the way in 2023, the most significant being the reduction of that bloated field from 125 to 70. Every other numerical measure will continue to rise, however, which is what dough is supposed to do.

Seriously, is there anything better than a trip to the bakery? Just don’t turn around to see who’s standing in line behind you.

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