The PGA Tour's New Merry-Go-Round Season

By: Marino Parascenzo

We are fast approaching the end of the PGA Tour's first wrap-around season, at which time Commissioner Tim Finchem will mark the event with his State of the Tour address. For those not given to hanging out in long lines for the big moment, a sneak preview is available at no extra charge. Right here.

Finchem will give his address at the Tour Championship, at East Lake Golf Club near Atlanta, the flagship event that ends the 2013-14 golf season in the second week of September, and not a minute too soon. It's almost time for the 2014-15 season to begin. Yes, there does seem to be a merry-go-round feel to it, minus the shiny ponies and the campy organ music, but we should remember that golf is a year-long sport. How you divvy it up is what's up for discussion.

(Yes, basketball and hockey start their season one year and end it the next, but you get plenty of time in between to go for a sandwich and a beer.)

At Atlanta, Finchem will deal with a wide range of subjects, but the Dustin Johnson Matter won't be one of them. We'll recall that the lanky, long-hitting Johnson, who is engaged to Wayne Gretzky's model daughter Paulina, announced early in August that he was leaving the tour to deal with "personal challenges" (not further identified). It was widely and quickly reported that he had failed another drug test. The speculation was that the tour had suspended him. The tour issued a short, sterile statement: ". . . This is to clarify that Mr. Johnson has taken a voluntary leave of absence and is not under a suspension from the PGA Tour."

There are some tantalizing questions there. It's said to be his third failed drug test - the first coming in 2009 for marijuana, the second in 2012 for cocaine, after which he was off the tour for about two and a half months. He said it was a sore back. Skeptics say it was a suspension. This time, whose idea was it that Johnson take time off to deal with the personal challenges?

Did he decide, or did the tour suggest it and he took the hint. Or perhaps the tour has a really stiff penalty for a third strike and gave him the option of ducking it with a mea culpa gesture. Assuming, of course, that he really did fail a test. The tour remains mute, apart from that brief statement, and that in itself was quite a departure. The tour will turn over heaven and hell to discover whether a guy had marked his ball improperly, so precious is the integrity of the game. But on the issue of drug testing, the CIA, NSA and your local lodge can't match the tour for secrecy.

The Johnson Matter came up at Finchem's news conference at the recent Barclays tournament, the start of his prized playoff system. Finchem shot it down.

". . . We understand his statement and what he's going to do," Finchem said. "We support his decision to do it, and we'll have no further comment and we have no further comment."

Someone made a last pitch: Well, was he required to do anything?

Finchem clarified his earlier statement. "We have no further comment," he said.

So back to the Barclays and the Playoffs and the FedEx Cup - a Finchem baby and a brilliant one, at that.

Golf being a year-round sport, the tour began in the balmy breezes of Hawaii and California, a welcome and warming sight to relieve the cold of winter for most TV viewers. But it ran on through baseball's pennant races and into the teeth of pro and college football, to say nothing of the start of pro and college basketball, and even hockey. Who was left to watch golf? Finchem needed a socko finish for the tour to attract viewers.

Finchem borrowed from the team sports and created a season-long race - awarding points toward the FedEx Cup. The chase ends with a three-tournament elimination series that whittles the field to the final 30 for the Tour Championship finale. It's designed to keep the focus on FedEx, the sponsor, as the quid pro quo for the $30 million bonus pool.

So far, Finchem has resisted glorifying the championship with Roman numerals, as the NFL does with the Super Bowl. Smart non-move. This will be the seventh FedEx Cup. FedEx VII might be OK, but just think - three years from now you'd have the FedEx X.

"We're very pleased with the progress of the Playoffs and the FedEx Cup as a whole," Finchem said at the Barclays. "It's pulled the tour together in real, meaningful, year-long competition. . . . The players have really gotten into it and committed to it and [are] excited about it and they obviously enjoy it . . ."

Well, not to spoil the party, but really, a $1.44 million first prize for each of the four playoff tournaments plus a $10 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup would tend to stir the most jaded golfer. A golfer who wins both the Tour Championship finale and the FedEx Cup has scored a $11.4 million week.

Some critics say the FedEx thing is not a real competition but just a promotional campaign. But then, aren't they all? For FedEx, it's a kind of long-term naming rights gig. For the tour, it's the chance to be somebody in the fall, going against football in particular.

Said Finchem: ". . . We felt if the playoffs got to be interesting enough, we could carry our audience pretty well for a few weeks into football, and that's materialized."

There was another key aspect to the wraparound season. Previously, the late-year tournaments were pretty much slops for the run-of-the-mill players to scrap for while the big boys had packed it in for the year. But suddenly, those tournaments were the start of the new season, full-fledged and accredited. Now they really counted, just like the mid-summer events.

The Open led off the new 2013-14 season last October, and don't try to tell Jimmy Walker it didn't amount to much because the marquee boys were off somewhere with their feet up. Walker, 34, had gone 187 starts - some 12 years - without winning. He took the Frys, his first win in his 188th start, and had his first ticket to the Masters, and a berth in the PGA Championship. "You want to be playing in the big stuff," Walker said. Two more wins early this year had him deep in the big stuff and deep in money.

Finchem will also be asked to explain something about Tour players getting access to the PGA Tour. There seems to be wrinkles in his grand plan. It's going to take a team of pure mathematicians to sort it out. Finchem didn't seem to be sweating. Things have gone just so swimmingly.

"When we started the FedEx Cup, we knew it was going to take enough years to get history on the books," Finchem said. "Candidly, it's moved a little faster than we thought it would . . ."

Candidly, that is.

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional honors. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.