ATLANTA – Pat Perez, never one to mince words or sugarcoat a $10 million elephant in a room, was asked on Wednesday about his chances this week at the traveling circus’ big finish.
“You know, for me to win the FedExCup, there's got to be a million things that have to go right and the biggest one happens to be me winning,” the eclectic veteran figured. “For me it's like winning the Powerball, because all the top guys would have to play bad, which they haven't done all year. So for them to all do it at once and me win, it’s about the same odds as Powerball.”
And does Perez play Powerball? “No, no chance. I bought a can of chew instead. Got more enjoyment out of that,” he answered.
East Lake understandably to some qualifies as “fantasy land” - Perez's words, not mine - but the elusive jackpot at the end of this week’s rainbow has a much more tangible meaning to others in the field.
After a decade, winning the FedExCup has fully evolved into an accomplishment that transcends even the most lofty expectations the PGA Tour had when it introduced its unique version of a playoff in 2007.
Players may have initially embraced the concept in ’07, if not the overly complicated math, but the cup's place among the game’s most coveted achievements was very much in flux.
Tiger Woods skipped the postseason opener in the New York area in ’07, the year he won the inaugural FedExCup, and Sergio Garcia hasn’t played the playoff lid-lifter four times in 11 years.
The $10 million was always attractive, and players by and large appreciated what the playoffs did for golf - creating meaningful competition during a time of year when the game had largely been a sporting afterthought - but the FedExCup wasn't necessarily high on players' priority lists.
That notion has changed, slowly but surely, as evidenced by this week’s field at East Lake and the level of play so far this postseason. That evolving reality has never been as obvious as it was on Tuesday when Jordan Spieth, the points leader entering the finale, was asked what was more important to players this week, assuming they would have to choose – a victory at East Lake or the FedExCup?
“I think players are probably more focused on the FedExCup than the Tour Championship,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Spieth or the other 29 guys in the field completely understand the convoluted points and permutations that go into the winning equation, but with history has come a general understanding of what needs to happen to claim the cup.
Just twice in the playoff era has the winner at East Lake not gone on to win the FedExCup, and both of those victors came before the circuit reworked the points structure to help tilt the competition toward those who play the best in the postseason.
Although he said he isn’t aware of every possible scenario, Spieth fully grasps the concept that - for the top five points leaders - one win (the Tour Championship) will beget another (the FedExCup) on Sunday.
“There are a lot of scenarios where I can still win the FedExCup and not win, and I can finish seventh like last week and probably still win depending on how it shapes up,” he explained. “But the likelihood is the guys that have been playing really well, the guys that are hot, you're likely to see toward the top of the leaderboard again.”
Spieth's wait-and-see scenario came to fruition for last year's points leader Dustin Johnson, when Rory McIlroy went into a playoff with Kevin Chappell and Ryan Moore late Sunday.
McIlroy needed to win the OT bout to claim the $10 million, while Johnson waited in the clubhouse for an alternative, as a Chappell or Moore victory would have assured him the cup instead.
“I still give [Chappell] crap, because he's a buddy of mine, so I still jab at him every once in a while about how much he cost me,” joked Johnson, who begins this week third on the points list.
Johnson can joke about his $7 million shortfall, the difference between finishing first and second in the FedExCup standings, because even though the check gets people’s attention, it’s the meaning and depth of the competition that motivates players – at least players at this level.
“In terms of this week, it's definitely not about the money. It's definitely not about being better than anybody else. I just like to win, and I like trophies,” said Justin Thomas, who enters the week behind only Spieth. “Not only the Tour Championship, but anytime you can win a year-long race and be known as a champion of an entire year, it's a big deal.”
The FedExCup means vastly different things to different people, but the biggest difference now is that it’s truly meaningful to the players.