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Golf playoffs make sense until the Tour Championship

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PGA Tour (75x100)LEMONT, Ill. – PGA Tour officials would like you to believe no trophy is tougher to win than the FedEx Cup.

They may be right.

The trick is not to mistake difficulty for significance. The most important trophies are handed out four times a year in the major championships, which define great players (Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods) and identify others (Jack Fleck, Shaun Micheel).

What makes the FedEx Cup so difficult to win?

Woods has been saying for the last dozen years that the key to winning majors is to peak at the right time, which means having your game come together for one week in April, June, July and August.

Playing the best golf in the final week of September at the Tour Championship to win the FedEx Cup isn’t necessarily enough.

Players first have to qualify for the 30-man field at East Lake, a process that could take all year (Woods, Steve Stricker), one month (Padraig Harrington, Marc Leishman) or one week (Heath Slocum).

Even with points worth quintuple value in the postseason, everyone at East Lake is inside the top 50 on the money list. Woods is the No. 1 player in the world and – at the moment – in the FedEx Cup. His six victories are twice as many as anyone else, the most recent win coming at Cog Hill in the third playoff event.

But if he doesn’t win the Tour Championship, there’s a chance someone else will be kissing the cup.

Is that fair?

About as fair as the New England Patriots going 18-0 and losing the Super Bowl. About as fair as the Cleveland Indians winning 111 games in 1954 for the highest winning percentage in American League history, and then getting swept in the World Series.

Woods hasn’t been perfect this year, although in some respects, he is undefeated. He has the most victories. He has won the most money. He has the best scoring average.

It was clear that Woods had not studied the points system when he arrived at The Barclays to begin the playoffs. He was deflated to learn he could win all three playoff events, finish second at the Tour Championship and lose the FedEx Cup. Even more disheartening was to hear that someone could capture the FedEx Cup without ever having won a tournament all year.

Mathematically possible, but logical? You be the judge.

Jim Furyk, who has not won in more than two years, could win the FedEx Cup by finishing third at East Lake. That would require Woods finishing eighth and Stricker fourth. It can happen.

And that would be the nightmare scenario for the PGA Tour.

Woods understands the analogy of the Patriots going undefeated and losing the Super Bowl. He also raises an important distinction.

“That’s their biggest prize,” he said.

Not so in golf.

Maybe that’s why too much time is spent on what the FedEx Cup is not, instead of considering what it is – a competition that brings together the best players on the PGA Tour when they otherwise might be home watching football like everyone else.

“There’s too much comparing going on,” Stewart Cink said.

Every shot counted the first nine months, and it counted even more the last three weeks. It counts the most at East Lake.

While it is easy to poke fun of the points system, this version worked beautifully. The eight players with multiple victories this year all qualified for Atlanta. So did the four major champions. And with an emphasis on the last three playoff events, seven players outside the top 30 when the playoffs began made it to the Tour Championship by playing great golf.

If there is a problem, it comes at the finish line.

The Tour Championship used to be a meaningful event only by accident. The last time was in 2003, when Woods and Vijay Singh were battling for the money title and campaigning for player of the year.

This one promises to be meaningful, but at what cost?

There is no guarantee the best player will win the FedEx Cup. Tour officials made sure of that by resetting the points after three playoff events so that all 30 players at East Lake have a mathematical chance. The top five need no help from anyone; they only have to win the Tour Championship to collect the prize.

Yet if the tour had left the system alone, there was a chance of the golf’s Super Bowl having as much interest as a preseason game.

“The whole idea of the playoffs was for us to get into the top five,” Woods said. “And now, it’s basically a sprint. It’s one tournament, a sprint, assuming one of the top five guys wins the tournament.”

The FedEx Cup pays out $10 million to the winner. The value of the trophy will depend on the name inscribed on it.