EDISON, N.J. – The problem has always seemed to be an issue of semantics.
In a blatant attempt to draft off of the success enjoyed by other sports, the PGA Tour billed its four-event FedEx Cup as a “playoff,” which initially felt like a mixed metaphor, considering professional golf has always revolved around the four major championships.
Where other sports are defined by a postseason that begets championships, truly great seasons in golf are forged from April to August. That hasn’t changed.
“I put winning the FedEx Cup below a major championship. I don't think anybody holds it to the same level necessarily as far as players,” said Jordan Spieth, who enters the playoffs this week No. 1 on the season-long point list. “I don't know exactly where I put it. It's something that obviously everybody wants to win, there's no doubt about it.”
What has changed in the eight years since the Tour began the postseason experiment, however, is how closely these final four events resemble an actual playoff.
After a series of nip/tucks to the point structure and playoff format with varying degrees of success, the Tour introduced a dramatic points reset the week before the Tour Championship in 2009.
The resulting impact has been a simple and entirely familiar truth – win the Tour Championship and win the FedEx Cup.
The last five FedEx Cup champions have all completed their seasons with a victory at East Lake and while there are all number of scenarios that could shatter that status quo this season, history suggests that’s not likely.
It is the simplest of outcomes right along the lines of the famous Al Davis speech, “Just win, baby.”
Although often clouded by math, the playoffs follow the time-honored script so revered in other sports. The last team to win, whether it’s the Super Bowl or World Series, is the champion.
“You can have an OK season and all of a sudden you play good at the right time and be a FedEx Cup champion,” said Hunter Mahan. “It does feel like a late-season push here. You can kind of forget where you have been and you can really be right here because you know good play right now means a lot. It means a lot more than maybe a couple months ago when you were just kind of playing maybe preparing for a major.”
For the Tour, the challenge has been walking the fine line between rewarding season-long performance and maintaining, however contrived, a sense of postseason urgency that is such a big part of other sports.
While the reset was prompted by Vijay Singh’s postseason performance in 2008, when he won the first two playoff stops and arrived at East Lake needing to only finish 72 holes to collect the silver trophy, it manufactured some volatility with a new format that pays off regular-season play but allows for dramatic momentum swings.
Last year Billy Horschel began the playoffs 69th in the FedEx Cup ranking, finished second at the Deutsche Bank Championship and won the BMW Championship and Tour Championship to collect the $10 million payday. It’s worth pointing out that before the postseason, BillyHo had just two top-10 finishes in what was otherwise a forgettable season.
“I think they have got it tweaked just right,” said Davis Love III, who made an 11th-hour charge into the playoffs with his victory last week at the Wyndham Championship.
“It's exciting. The huge jump I made last week, the possibility, like Billy Horschel last year of coming from the middle of the pack all the way to the winner, it's very, very exciting.”
That’s not to say golf’s version of a postseason fits perfectly into the preconceived notion of a playoff, starting with essentially 100 percent participation (125 players) at this week’s Barclays.
The concept of the “bye” week has also been stretched in golf, with Nos. 9 (Rory McIlroy) and 31 (Sergio Garcia) taking a pass for this week’s Barclays.
“We have seen that with Tiger [Woods in 2007] or Jim Furyk  accidentally; that you don't have to play all four,” Love said. “It puts you at a disadvantage, but you have to play really well in the other three.”
Just as it is in other sports, success in the postseason is all about timing. Victories in January and September are not created equal, which is how the FedEx Cup postseason has evolved into a playoff, or at least as close as golf may ever get to one.