ATLANTA – The sign along Glenwood Avenue says it all, “Welcome to the playoff finale,” with the subtle trace of something special left unspoken but thick in the humid Georgia air.
The only thing that’s missing from the sign adjacent East Lake Golf Club is the tag, “Brought to you by the same folks who gave us the Pythagorean theorem, Mensa and Rubik’s Cube.”
Where Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and an army of PGA Tour lawyers had failed, the eggheads delivered. Where 2007 and 2008 were sleepy coronations, pit stops for most on the way to silly and off seasons, the most recent edition of the Tour’s big finish suggests a competition spiced with a dollop of anticipation.
As well as Woods played last we saw him on the Southside of Chicago, it would take some grand odds and a strong gut not to bet the kids’ college fund on the world No. 1 to win this week’s Tour Championship and that $10 million, FedEx Cup side action.
But stranger things have happened (see Y.E. Yang, Heath Slocum, Kanye West). And if the right stranger survives a soggy four days at East Lake, speculation becomes a spectacle. As unreasonable as all that may sound, it’s Reason 1 why FedEx Cup 3.0 works.
That’s not to say the current system is perfect. Truth is, like the golf swing, there is no perfect when trying to wedge golf’s round peg into sport’s square-holed playoff concept.
If Woods were to win the first three playoff events he could, in theory the detractors say, get back doored by a Jim Furyk, who hasn’t won a Tour event since 2007. It is a mathematical reality born from playoff volatility and a points reset that dramatically narrowed the gap between the 30 would-be kings at East Lake.
Tour types dismiss such logic, pointing to the New England Patriots team that went 18-0 in 2008, but somehow lost the Super Bowl.
“Golf is a little bit different,” Wood said. “You try and have this season-long championship be our big event, but there’s four other ones that are pretty big, too.”
Without being dismissive, Woods’ take cuts to the heart of the issue. Golf already has four Super Bowls played in April, June, July and August and the playoffs will never play-through that foursome. Nor should they even try.
The last four weeks have, however, drawn together the game’s top players, in major markets and added a measure of excitement that hasn’t been seen in these parts since David Toms was wedging his way past Phil Mickelson at the 2001 PGA Championship down the road at Atlanta Athletic Club. And that’s not too bad.
The number crunchers also figured out that Woods could have skipped the first three playoff events and arrived at East Lake the third-seed with a better-than-average chance to haul in his second FedEx Cup with a victory at the finale.
“I’m glad he didn’t,” Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said.
Finchem concedes there is no perfect for golf’s playoff formula. A game that has been defined by the Grand Slams for decades will embrace the Draconian nature of a playoff only reluctantly. And, to the extent that each of the 30 players who tee off on Thursday have a mathematical shot at the grand cash grab, that’s not too bad, either.
“We’re trying to have excitement with lots of possibilities,’ Finchem said. “You’ve got to beat the best, you’ve got to beat them regularly, and you still have to turn right around and perform here.”
And here is where the mathematicians seemed to have gotten the decimals in the right spots. If the stars align properly and the storm clouds leave East Lake to drip dry, a tortured soul could possibly have an $11.3 million putt come Sunday. That’s $10 million for the FedEx Cup, and $1.3 million in walkin’ around money for the Tour Championship haul.
Ask Brandt Snedeker how important it was to earn his spot at East Lake, a mental miscue he made on the 72nd hole at Cog Hill that resulted in an unsightly, and unnatural, four-putt from 12 feet.
“This is what we wanted. We wanted 4 footers to mean something,” a dejected Snedeker said.
And the Tour wanted East Lake to mean something – check and check. For that, Mensa members world wide should rejoice. If this week’s finale doesn’t make math club popular, nothing will.