A new way to use starting strokes in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs
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A new way to use starting strokes in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs

A picture of golfer Rory McIlroy DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 29: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tees off on the 8th hole during the Third Round on Day Four of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on January 29, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

The PGA Tour has long had a problem with the FedEx Cup playoffs. The problem is that the Tour wants to conduct an exciting series of playoff events that feature the best, most familiar players. The structure has to simultaneously offer some sense of volatility and movement in the FedEx Cup standings while also doing its best to make sure the top players have ample opportunity to get all the way to the Tour Championship at East Lake.

The Tour has employed a variety of systems going back to 2007. At first, the points system had almost no volatility, but Tiger Woods won that initial year, so it was great. Then in Year 2, the system seemingly became too volatile for the Tour's liking. Eventually, the Tour found something it liked for years in the hard reset of the points after the penultimate leg of the playoffs, giving the top players in the standings a significant points edge heading into the Tour Championship.

However, the trouble with the reset -- and anything associated with the point system -- was the idea of two winners. A player could win the Tour Championship and not win the FedEx Cup, and vice versa. That created a confusing image that the Tour didn't like. So it moved to the starting-strokes concept, whereby the 30 players who qualify for the Tour Championship would have their position in the standings converted to a pre-tournament handicap that separated the field based on the season to date. The top five players would have the best chance to win the Tour Championship, and the Tour Championship winner would be awarded the FedEx Cup, making it easy for viewers to understand who the real winner was on the final championship Sunday of the season.

While the starting-strokes concept is much more fan friendly, it's drawn the stink eye from fans who don't like the idea of starting what is effectively a $70 million tournament with a handicap. At the same time, the other two playoff events have seen virtually no movement from the top 30 as it started before the playoffs began. Through the FedEx St. Jude Championship and the BMW Championship, a grand total of three players (two in Memphis, one near Chicago) moved into the next event from outside the cutoff. That's not exciting enough.

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What I am proposing, then, is to use the starting-strokes idea at the outset of the playoffs. Convert each of the 70 qualifying players' positions to strokes for the beginning of the FedEx St. Jude Championship, and then let the players compete on the course.

At the FedEx St. Jude Championship, the top 70 players play four rounds of a tournament. The winner of that 72-hole event gets the $3.6 million for winning the tournament, and the top 50 players in combined scores between the starting strokes and the tournament results get into the BMW Championship. The combined scores carry over to the BMW Championship, and the process is repeated with the remaining 50 players. Do it all again at East Lake to crown a FedEx Cup champion at the Tour Championship, with the entire purse still doled out based on the results of the whole playoffs and not a single tournament.

This system creates significant volatility. At the FedEx St. Jude Championship alone, seven players would have moved into the top 50 as a result of the handicapping system instead of the points system. However, eight of the top 10 would remain the same between the two systems, still offering some protection for the best players from the regular season while guaranteeing some volatility if a top player has a horrible playoff opener.

Here's how it would look.

The starting strokes at the beginning of the playoffs would heavily weight players in the top 10 in the standings, offering a dovetail opportunity with the Tour Top 10 bonus pool. Every player in the top 10 would start the playoffs under par, with the regular-season leader starting at 10 under par. Everyone else would be at par or worse, grouped in clusters of 10 down to the 61st-70th players who would begin the playoffs at 5 over par.

1 -10
2 -9
3 -8
4 -7
5 -6
6 -6
7 -4
8 -3
9 -2
10 -1
11-20 E
21-30 1
31-40 2
41-50 3
51-60 4
61-70 5

Then the playoffs start. Using this year's FedEx St. Jude Championship, here's how the FedEx Cup standings would look after Lucas Glover beat Patrick Cantlay in a playoff at TPC Southwind, compared to the way it worked with the points system.

1 3 Rory McIlroy -22
2 6 Max Homa -18
3 1 Jon Rahm -15
4 5 Patrick Cantlay -15
5 2 Scottie Scheffler -15
6 7 Viktor Hovland -14
7 10 Tommy Fleetwood -13
8 4 Lucas Glover -12
9 9 Brian Harman -11
10 15 Russell Henley -11
11 14 Taylor Moore -11
12 20 Adam Schenk -10
13 25 Corey Conners -10
14 22 Collin Morikawa -9
15 27 Jordan Spieth -9
16 17 Si Woo Kim -9
17 28 Sungjae Im -9
18 29 Chris Kirk -8
19 31 Sahith Theegala -8
20 23 Emiliano Grillo -7
21 11 Keegan Bradley -7
22 16 Nick Taylor -7
23 18 Tom Kim -7
24 19 Xander Schauffele -7
25 37 Adam Hadwin -6
26 45 Cam Davis -6
27 32 Justin Rose -6
28 47 Hideki Matsuyama -5
29 41 Andrew Putnam -4
30 42 Eric Cole -4
31 43 J.T. Poston -4
32 36 Lee Hodges -4
33 26 Tyrrell Hatton -4
34 39 Adam Svensson -3
35 OUT Beau Hossler -3
36 38 Byeong Hun An -3
37 46 Cameron Young -3
38 12 Rickie Fowler -3
39 OUT Stephan Jaeger -3
40 OUT Ben Griffin -2
41 44 Brendon Todd -2
42 OUT J.J. Spaun -2
43 21 Jason Day -2
44 30 Sam Burns -2
45 8 Wyndham Clark -2
46 OUT Brandon Wu -1
47 33 Kurt Kitayama -1
48 OUT Sam Ryder -1
49 OUT Taylor Montgomery -1
50 48 Tom Hoge -1
OUT 34 Denny McCarthy 5
OUT 49 Harris English 1
OUT 40 Matt Fitzpatrick 6
OUT 50 Patrick Rodgers 1
OUT 35 Seamus Power 5
OUT 24 Sepp Straka 1
OUT 13 Tony Finau 1

This top 50 would move on to the BMW Championship and then compete to determine a 72-hole winner and the top 30 for the Tour Championship. Since this hypothetical new system wasn't used, we can't run a true simulation of the BMW Championship and how that would pan out to determine the East Lake field. However, here's what our top 30 would look like with the players that qualified for the BMW Championship under the current points system and where they stand against par.

1 3 Rory McIlroy -34
2 2 Viktor Hovland -31
3 1 Scottie Scheffler -30
4 6 Max Homa -29
5 8 Brian Harman -22
6 7 Patrick Cantlay -21
7 12 Russell Henley -20
8 17 Sungjae Im -19
9 19 Corey Conners -17
10 5 Lucas Glover -16
11 11 Tommy Fleetwood -16
12 15 Xander Schauffele -16
13 4 Jon Rahm -15
14 OUT Sahith Theegala -14
15 16 Tom Kim -14
16 24 Collin Morikawa -12
17 OUT Andrew Putnam -11
18 OUT Chris Kirk -10
19 OUT Justin Rose -10
20 23 Adam Schenk -9
21 OUT Adam Svensson -9
22 OUT Cameron Young -9
23 13 Keegan Bradley -9
24 20 Si Woo Kim -9
25 OUT J.T. Poston -8
26 29 Jordan Spieth -8
27 26 Sam Burns -8
28 9 Wyndham Clark -8
29 27 Emiliano Grillo -7
30 OUT Eric Cole -7

While this comparison shows eight players moving into the Tour Championship from outside the top 30 at the start of the BMW Championship, that number would be smaller if the starting strokes concept was employed throughout the playoffs. Also, the top-to-bottom spread of 27 strokes between Nos. 1 and 30 would be smaller, probably closer to 20 strokes. From there, the Tour Championship would be played, and a FedEx Cup champion would be crowned. Given these standings, there would be four players -- Rory McIlroy, Viktor Hovland, Scottie Scheffler and Max Homa -- that would have a legitimate chance to win the FedEx Cup through the Tour Championship. Brian Harman would be fifth in the standings by 12 back of the lead, which is not an impossible deficit in 72 holes but extremely unlikely.

A full one-third of the Tour Championship field in this scenario (again, imperfect, and the number would be lower in reality) would have come from outside the top 30 from when the playoffs began. Meanwhile, 20 of the 30-player field would be into East Lake, meaning the bulk of the best players from the regular season would get to the finale.

8 32 Sungjae Im -19
10 49 Lucas Glover -16
14 34 Sahith Theegala -14
17 41 Andrew Putnam -11
19 33 Justin Rose -10
21 38 Adam Svensson -9
22 48 Cameron Young -9
25 45 J.T. Poston -8
26 31 Jordan Spieth -8
30 40 Eric Cole -7

The end result would be a clear set of favorites at the Tour Championship, while still protecting players who had a great playoffs by giving them a big edge on the rest of the field for the remaining bonus money. The system is easy to understand, and players and fans can see that every shot in the playoffs truly matters. This makes each playoff event more meaningful, while still practically guaranteeing a large crop of the best players getting through to the season finale.

About the author


Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for nearly 20 years. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He is a scratch golfer...sometimes.

Ballengee can be reached by email at ryan[at]thegolfnewsnet.com

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