Child's play


ATLANTA – It’s a question as old as gift cards and party favors. What do you get a precocious 5-year-old who has clumsily straddled the gulf between limitless potential and an over-inflated sense of self-importance?

We’re talking about a toddler who, through no real fault of its own, made the age-old mistake of over-promising and under-delivering and yet has enjoyed a surprisingly eventful half-decade.

From their debut in 2007, the FedEx Cup playoffs were a square-peg solution for a round-hole game. A game defined by four majors – and, to a lesser extent, an occasional cup – and played by independent contractors. But if the powers that created the FedEx Cup are guilty of anything, it is poor word association.

Most agree the term “playoff” was never going to be a good fit for golf. There is no collective one-and-done pressure and, to be accurate, East Lake isn’t even the end of the season, but calling the big finish the “$10 million cash grab” probably didn’t test well with focus groups.

So the Tour tinkered, with points and resets and even revenue distribution and along the way the playoffs delivered, from Vijay Singh’s win in 2008 – a buzz-less affair that was highlighted by the Fijian needing to simply stay upright for four days in Atlanta to cash the $10 million lottery ticket – to Tiger vs. Phil in ’09, a perfect storm that may be as good as these playoffs ever get.

Five years into the experiment the best thing anyone can say about the FedEx Cup is that it’s better than what came before it.

“(The FedEx Cup) accomplished more than we had anticipated by this point in time,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said Tuesday at East Lake.

The commish measures postseason success in practical terms, citing increased viewership for this year’s postseason and the Tour’s latest round of network television contracts that now stretch into the next decade.

But even Finchem conceded that the ultimate arbiters of playoff success or failure are the players.

“I thought it was telling that (last year) a player who had not won early on but was very consistent and garnered the FedEx Cup (Jim Furyk) was then recognized by his peers as the Player of the Year, which I think spoke volumes for Jim and a lot about the FedEx Cup, as well, in terms of where it's come in four short years,” Finchem said.

The playoffs are important when the players say they are. Although the collective has not reached a consensus, there were signs of progress in 2011.

After bogeying the final hole at last week’s BMW Championship, Camilo Villegas marched over to a scoring computer to confirm what his gut already knew. He’d slipped into a tie for sixth and missed advancing to East Lake by three spots. His fist slamming into a table said more about the playoffs’ growing importance than all the PSAs that Camp Ponte Vedra Beach has produced to date.

Two weeks earlier at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Ernie Els, one of four players to have participated in every playoff-era Tour Championship, compared his push to keep his postseason hopes alive to winning a golf tournament, only harder.

Whether it is the money or the morose thought of having to watch the action from the sidelines is debatable, but there is no denying that the playoffs matter to the rank and file.

Exactly where the 5-year-old ranks in the competitive hierarchy is golf’s version of a player to be named later. Most Tour types surveyed Wednesday at East Lake rank a FedEx Cup crown somewhere between a major championship and, say, winning the Zurich Classic.

“The playoffs were something that said you were one of the best of the year. It’s a great thing to be able to say that you didn’t just have one great week but you had a great year,” Matt Kuchar said. “The playoffs have become a great event. They’ve kind of gotten a formula that really works.”

Not that your off-the-shelf fan could break down this week’s points reset without the aid of a flow chart and a Tour mathematician. Truth is, most players would need a few hours studying the playoff’s “FAQ” page if they were pressed to explain the system’s nuances. But this much is certain to every inner-competitor: you can’t win the FedEx Cup playoffs if you don’t play in them.

As for those who question the system’s competitive integrity, it’s worth noting that a defending FedEx Cup champion has never made it back to East Lake the following year. If that doesn’t scream “playoffs,” nothing does.

“If you go back in golf and look at any tournament . . . there is a graduation of stature of any event that rides with the extent to which players prioritize that event,” Finchem said. “That's where it starts. It doesn't start with the fans. It can be impacted by the media, but it really starts with the players. And clearly in these last couple of years, there have been very clear signs of how the importance to players has grown with the FedEx Cup.”

Maybe the best birthday present one could give the playoffs is perspective. The postseason has not been a tectonic shift in the way the game measures greatness, but it has given fans a reason not to change the channel in the fall and players a reason to be hungry. Not bad for a precocious 5-year-old with identity issues.