ATLANTA – Ten-million dollars doesn’t buy as much as it once did.
To be clear, as paydays go, winning the FedEx Cup qualifies as a cash flow boon, even for most of the millionaires who made it to East Lake for this week’s PGA Tour season finale.
The pot of gold – it’s actually a silver cup filled with dollar bills, but that doesn’t paint the same enticing picture – has always been the central theme of the Tour’s playoffs. Through years when the mathematical formulas proved to be mind-numbingly complicated and early indifference from top players threatened to undermine the concept, the big lottery ticket awaiting the winner was always an easy way to sway the conversation back to the competition.
From the early days of the FedEx Cup experiment, there were always 10 million reasons to pay attention, whether you were a player or fan.
This year, however, it’s the championship, not the check, that’s dominating the conversation among the players. For the first time, the winner of the Tour Championship will be crowned on East Lake’s ninth hole, now the 18th after officials reversed the nines for the tournament, and it will probably also be a first that the would-be champion will be focused on something other than their bank account during the award ceremony.
This isn’t a case of millionaires turning their noses up at pocket change. Unlike other professional sports, that much money can still cause a Tour player to sit up and listen.
“It's still a ridiculous amount of money, for a lot of guys in the field, maybe there's a few here, it doesn't change their lives that much,” said Paul Casey, who at fifth on the points list can assure himself the FedEx Cup with a victory. “But for most of the guys in the field, this would be a life-changing victory, and for me, I'm one of those guys.”
The difference this year for the FedEx Cup, which celebrates 10 years this week, is that having your name etched into the cup has taken priority over signing you name on the oversized check.
Maybe it’s a decade of tinkering that’s created a system that the majority of players agree with even if they don’t entirely understand it. Or perhaps it’s a trophy that includes the game’s biggest names, from Tiger Woods (2007 and ’09) to Jordan Spieth (’15). Whatever it is, the onetime curiosity has evolved into a bona fide craving.
“More so than money, I'd much rather have my name on the trophy, and that's just me personally because how much is enough?” said Jason Day, who begins the week fourth on the points list. “We all have money, but I don't have my name on the FedEx Cup trophy, and that's what I really want.”
That’s a long way from the initial thoughts on the season-long cash grab that has nothing to do with the adjusted cost of living rate and everything to do with a desire to play for more than just a paycheck, even one as big as Sunday’s jackpot.
Much like The Players and Presidents Cup, both Tour-owned properties that compete with the game’s biggest events for prestige and attention, the FedEx Cup was always going to suffer by comparison.
For years, The Players has scratched away for “fifth major” status, just as the Presidents Cup has always been challenged to move out of the Ryder Cup’s shadow. But throughout those debates it’s been the players who would decide the relative importance of each event.
The same narrative applies to the FedEx Cup, and on this front the players seem to have an increasingly clear commitment.
“I remember people kind of sneering when we first started this, thinking this is never going to be as important as a major, and now you hear guys talking about it as if it's a fifth major, as something that is that important,” said Brandt Snedeker, the winner of the 2012 FedEx Cup.
The most glaring example of this increased attention came on Tuesday when Jordan Spieth, who is seventh on the points list, was asked if he knew the various scenarios that would allow him to win the FedEx Cup.
“Dustin [Johnson] can't finish in a two-way tie, second or better, and Patrick [Reed] can't finish solo second,” Spieth explained to a slightly stunned audience. “I told you guys I knew.”
It was an uncharacteristic nod, for all players not just Spieth, to the importance of these last four events that the normally process-driven athletes allow something other than the next shot into the decision making.
It’s not that inflation or indifference has robbed $10 million of its luster, it’s just that the FedEx Cup, which has always been a work in progress, has evolved into more than just a collection of zeros. A $10 million payday can buy a lot, but not competitive relevance. Only a decade of trial and error can do that.