A Big 'If' in the Tour Championship

By: Tony Dear

Each of the major championships has a theme. At the Masters, CBS's Jim Nantz eulogizes about the tradition, the azaleas, Bobby Jones' legacy, and the drive up Magnolia Lane while soothing trumpet music plays in the background. The U.S. Open telecast is invariably peppered with comments about how difficult and punishing the course is, and how par is always a good score.

The Open Championship is known for being "Royal and Ancient" and is played over those quirky links courses that invite more imaginative shotmaking while redirecting goods drives into pot bunkers after they land on sand dunes, some no bigger than a Swiss ball.

In an ideal world, the PGA Championship would be known as the "Matchplay Major," but instead it bills itself as "Glory's Last Shot." It's also the one that has attracted the most journeymen winners so, until recently, has felt like a regular PGA Tour event but just a little bit more important. Now, since Tiger Woods has elevated the status of each of the Grand Slam events by attempting to surpass Jack Nicklaus's record of having won 18 of them, it feels more like a genuine major championship but just a little bit less important than the others.

Then there's the Players Championship, which also has its theme, albeit one that is forced, engineered and ultimately hollow-sounding. It is the game's so-called "fifth major," an aggravating moniker which, one suspects, loses it more friends than it gains.

This week's commentary from the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta will, like that of the Masters, frequently honor the memory of Bobby Jones for it is here that the game's greatest-ever amateur learned to swing a spoon so beautifully. But it will feature another common thread - or word - that Nantz, Nick Faldo, David Feherty and the rest of the CBS crew will use again and again: "If."

It will come at the beginning of countless sentences ranging from: "If Tiger birdies the 18th he'll not only win the tournament but also his second FedEx Cup," to "If Stricker finishes second this week and Woods fourth, Stricker will win the Cup provided Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Heath Slocum or Padraig Harrington don't win the tournament," to the less likely, "If Jason Dufner wins the Tour Championship he will win the FedEx Cup as long as Tiger finishes fifth or worse, Stricker fourth or worse and so on."

Of course, if (there it is again) Woods builds a six-shot lead after 63 holes, the announcers will focus less on what would happen if . . . than on Woods's triumphant return from knee surgery earlier in the year and his inexorable progress toward his 10th Player of the Year Award.

After his almost flawless display at Cog Hill in Chicago two weeks ago, that very scenario seems perfectly plausible. Three weeks of poor putting and disappointing finishes - starting at Hazeltine and the PGA Championship, then at Liberty National and the Barclays and lastly at TPC Boston and the Deutsche Bank Championship - had the golf world pondering Tiger's, and the game's, future. But just as the premature, not to say desperate, questions over his new-found vulnerability reached a crescendo, the world No. 1 reverted to his normal, blowing-the-competition-out-of-the-water self at the BMW Championship with just 105 strokes of his Scotty Cameron.

Add to that his 2007 performance at East Lake when he humiliated both the competition and the course by cruising through 72 holes in a mind-boggling 257 shots, and you have a pretty compelling argument that says Woods will win the Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup, Player of the Year, the Vardon Trophy (for low stroke average, awarded by the PGA of America), Byron Nelson Award (low stroke average, given by the PGA Tour), and Arnold Palmer Award (for topping the money list).

Because the points were reset at the end of the BMW Championship, any one in the top five on the current FedEx points list can stop Woods from winning two of those awards, possibly three - the Tour Championship, FedEx Cup and maybe Player of the Year - should they win this week. And those from five to 10 have a decent chance of toppling the Tiger if they win at East Lake and others lend a hand. Those from 10 on down can still win the Tiffany & Co.-made trophy, including Aussie John Senden in 30th place, but in order for that to happen an awful lot of "ifs" will need to be satisfied.

When it's all done, analyzing the workings of the FedEx Cup points system - now an annual occupation - will begin in earnest. At the root of all discussions will be whether or not the best player on the PGA Tour won. If Tiger does indeed claim it then there will be no discussion, the FedEx Cup will be viewed in a wholly positive light, and the structure and way points are accumulated throughout the season - then reset - will probably be safe for another year at least.

Should third-placed Jim Furyk win it, however - something that could happen even if he comes third this week (he'd need Woods to finish eighth or worse, Stricker fourth or worse, etc.), then rest assured the fools that devised this nonsense will be hung out to dry along with everyone who at some point along the way was misguided enough to compliment them - guilty by association and all that. Furyk, you understand, hasn't won in two years and has three top-three finishes from 21 tournaments in 2009 compared with Woods's eight (including six wins) from 16. When you consider those numbers, Furyk's walking off with the FedEx Cup would definitely seem a little unsupported.

But it hasn't happened yet, of course.

By now, hopefully everybody should have realized there is no way to please everybody. Those attempting to come up with the plan that satisfies every criterion, and every skeptic, will take their algorithms, formulas and equations to the grave.

Some will refute this, but most would maintain that this year's FedEx Cup has been a success and that the system is getting closer and closer to the ideal. The season's best players have been competing simultaneously for a month (nearly two actually if you go back to the WGC Bridgestone at Firestone) and the decision to reset points later in the year has given more players a chance of winning the cup with a good performance at East Lake.

Awarding five times the number of points during the playoffs as in the regular season might be a little excessive. After all, Heath Slocum jumped from 124th to third with his win in New Jersey. Australia's Marc Leishman was 78th at the start of the playoffs, missed the cut at The Barclays and fell to 93rd before jumping up into the 16th spot following ties for 15th and second. Dufner also missed the first cut and fell from 42nd to 57th, after which a joint runner-up finish in Boston and a tie for 10th in Chicago saw him rise to 10th.

Giving Senden, Jerry Kelly in 29th place, Luke Donald in 28th, etc., even the smallest chance of winning the FedEx Cup might also seem a little dubious to some. Is 30 players at the season finale too many, should it be matchplay or should, as Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle has suggested, players' cumulative totals for the four playoff events be the deciding factor? And does the week off between the BMW and Tour Championship really work, or should the break come between the Deutsche Bank and the BMW so as not to stall momentum going into the final tournament of the FedEx season?

Plenty there for the PGA Tour to ponder still. But if it can answer each question satisfactorily, then the FedEx Cup might become firmly established once and for all.

But, like so many we'll hear this week, that's a big "if."

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.