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Why the playoffs matter

FedEx Cup Playoffs
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EDISON, N.J. ' So, you say the FedEx Cup playoffs will never be considered more important than a major championship? I say no doubt, although they were never supposed to anyway.

You say these events simply fatten the wallets of world’s richest golfers? I say there are 10 million reasons you’re absolutely right.

You say the points system is too contrived? I say amen.

You say the entire idea doesn’t even matter to the 125 players who qualified during the season? I say you’re dead wrong.

Say what you will about the PGA Tour’s annual end-of-season playoff series, approaching its fifth installment starting at this week’s Barclays tournament, but it’s inarguable that the competitors don’t care about their impending result over the next four weeks.

For the most elite players, such relevance stems from the tangible effects that can be gained from a few positive results. With a quartet of strong fields, there will be plenty of Official World Golf Ranking points available. Like last year, when Jim Furyk prevailed for the title, this season’s Player of the Year award is still very much up for grabs.

And, oh by the way, there’s a handsome little $10 million first-place prize that will come in handy to whoever finishes the Tour Championship with the highest point total.

While players at the top of the current standings obviously own a better chance to succeed than those further down the list, it’s the guys in the middle of the pack and beyond who may have the most to gain by playing well over the next month – or even just parts of the next month.

Exhibit A: Kevin Na.

Two years ago, Na entered the playoffs at No. 23 on the points list. He finished T-24, T-11 and T-8 in the first three events – enough to qualify for the festivities at East Lake, where he finished dead last in the 30-man field.

No matter, though, because his inclusion in that tournament alone got him entry into each of the next year’s four major championships and the WGC event at Doral.

In an ever-overlapping domino theory, Na parlayed made cuts in two of the four majors last year into 41st position on the points list prior to the playoffs. Once again, he got semi-hot at the right time, finishing T-36, T-33 and T-3 at the first three events to secure his place in the Tour Championship field, in turn qualifying for those five elite tournaments the next year, as well.

“If you don’t have a win and you get to the Tour Championship, you’ve had a good year,” said Na, who enters this year’s playoffs at 47th on the points list. “That’s the way I look at it. I did it the last two years and got into the majors. It’s great. You can set your schedule up. Once again, this year, that’s my goal.”

While most experts point to Heath Slocum, who entered the 2009 FedEx Cup playoffs at 124th on the points list before winning The Barclays, as the poster child for what playoff success can induce, the reality is that players need not win nor even seriously contend to dramatically affect their schedules over the next 12 months.

Exhibit B: Jason Dufner.

Three years ago, Dufner played so poorly that he needed to attend Q-School in order to retain his status for the upcoming season. That next year, he reached the playoffs, but missed the cut in the first round. On the verge of seeing his playoff bubble burst at the Deutsche Bank Championship, he posted a final-round 65 to finish in a share of second place, vaulting him into the Tour Championship a few weeks later.

Like Na, inclusion in the field also granted him inclusion into those five elite fields the next year. Dufner finished T-5 at the PGA Championship and – if you believe in the butterfly effect – could possibly trace his recent second-place result at this year’s edition of that event to that one great round at TPC-Boston which led to a world of experience he wouldn’t have otherwise received.

“For somebody in my position in 2009, I had a nice year, I had played pretty decent,” Dufner recalled, “but my schedule for the next year was still in limbo. Getting into that top-30 really set me up. So it’s a win-win.”

Exhibit C: Martin Laird.

When he agonizingly three-putted the final green at last year’s Barclays to fall into a playoff, then lost on the first extra hole to Matt Kuchar, the prevailing theme surrounding Laird’s calamity was one of sorrow.

Looking back, though, the second-place result got him into the Tour Championship – where much like Na one year earlier, he finished in last place, but still gained entrance into the elite fields for the next season. Using that same butterfly effect, his T-10 at Doral preceded a T-5 at the Transitions Championship and then a second career PGA Tour victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

“It definitely helped my year this year,” Laird said. “There are a lot of things riding on it. If a guy comes in at 125 and he plays good this week, he can pretty much guarantee he’ll be in the first three events. That’s going to help him on the money list with keeping his card and if he keeps playing good, he’ll get into the Tour Championship.”

Call it the power of the playoffs.

If a player fares well this time of year and continues advancing to subsequent events, not only will he find himself at East Lake for the finale, but at each of the important tourneys for the next season, too.

“Just like with any other sport,” Na explained, “you can have a so-so season, but if your team puts it together in the playoffs, you start weeding out the top seeds and you can make it.”

It may not be the perfect scenario in all aspects, but the FedEx Cup playoffs matter. Just ask the players.