This marks the 10th season of the FedEx Cup era, and while playoffs and points and even split-calendar seasons – the latter of which came along in 2013 – have become the status quo on the PGA Tour there are still parts of the new math that require analysis.
Money lists, the standard for success for decades at the highest level, have been replaced by points lists for all manner of benchmarks – from the basic drive to keep one’s job (top 125) to qualifying for many of the game’s biggest events (top 30).
The last vestiges of cash will likely be benched for good following initial approval by the policy board of a proposal to nix exemptions for players who finish inside the top 125 in earnings but not points.
While points have become the norm among today’s Tour players, that doesn’t mean the system is perfect.
Although the Tour uses simple math to calculate the points breakdown each week, it’s not a perfect comparison to how cash is doled out.
Look at Gary Woodland’s run the past few weeks. After dropping to 84th on the points list when he missed the cut at Bay Hill, he tied for 33rd in Houston and yet remained 84th on the list. He then followed that with a tie for 20th that included a drop of 10 spots (to 94th on the list).
The next week at the Wells Fargo Championship he tied for 24th and moved up eight spots to 86th.
Essentially, the percentage of FedEx Cup points awarded to players is not the same as the percentage of money, with a tendency to reward middle-of-the-pack performances with points.
“If you get as golf sicko as I do sometimes, you can lay out the money list in one column and the FedEx Cup [points] list in another column and look at the difference,” Charles Howell III said. “Look, every player has to play under the same rules, I understand that, and every player can get benefit or hurt [from the differences].”
Consider the plight of Greg Owen, who currently holds down the 125th spot in earnings, but is 133rd on the points list. Jamie Donaldson is 124th in cash, 135th in points. Bud Cauley is 126th in money, 153rd on the FedEx Cup list.
You get the point – no pun intended – the lists are riddled with disparities.
Endless hours of studying the points list has brought Howell to the conclusion that to make the most of each start a player needs to finish around 35th place or better each week.
“If you look at the points breakdown, after that it really falls off fast. If your floor is at 35th, 36th if you’re able to finish above that you’re able to move along well,” Howell said last week at TPC Four Seasons.
The distribution of money is weighted more toward top finishes. For example, based on 70 players making the cut and no ties, a 10th-place finish is worth 2.7 percent of the purse; while that same finish is worth just .021 percent of the available FedEx Cup points.
“It’s not a perfect system and I honestly don’t know how you would do it unless you went back to money, which, for my generation, we were all so used to seeing money,” Howell said. “I understand the FedEx Cup and I understand why they want to do it more based on equality than strength of purse, if you will, per tournament, I get all that.”
For Howell, his season is a portrait of how the system is tilted toward steady play if not a spectacular week. In 19 starts, he’s finished outside of that magic top-35 position just six times and ranks 24th on the FedEx Cup points list, yet his best finish is a tie for fourth at last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson.
The FedEx Cup system and how points are distributed – which officials are currently reviewing – is focused more on rewarding consistency while money is allotted with a focus on finishes within the top 10; and Howell explains he’s been on the wrong side of the FedEx Cup math before, like in 2012 when he finished 84th on the points list after making 20 of 29 cuts but posted just eight top-25 finishes.
He also points out that it’s hard to debate how the system measures the game’s elite.
“It does evaluate the best players. They are always going to be [Nos.] 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” he said.
For Howell, the points list and how it differs from earnings is a study in perspectives, like most things in golf.
“I have a lot of things that go through my head about this game,” he laughs. “This game’s going to get us all eventually, right? We are all eventually headed to the same nut house.”