OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – In the decade since the PGA Tour introduced the concept of a postseason to professional golf, the idea has meant many things to many different players.
For Tiger Woods, a two-time winner of the season-long race in 2007 and ’09, the FedExCup was little more than a device to remind all of his dominance; while for the likes of Billy Horschel, the lottery winner in ’14, it was an 11th-hour surge that turned a decent season into something truly special.
As the FedExCup has evolved, so has the motivation to play the postseason. A curious experiment in ’07 when the Tour launched the concept, it has slowly been transformed from a cash grab into a compelling competition.
“I'm going to approach the first two events trying to obviously win but looking to kind of crescendo into East Lake and peak there and consider East Lake a major at this point as far as our preparation goes,” Jordan Spieth said on his way out of town two weeks ago at the PGA Championship.
Although there is always a push to make the regular season a bigger part of the playoff picture, for the likes of Spieth, who won the FedExCup in ’15, this really boils down to the four postseason stops, or to drill down even deeper, the final stop in Atlanta.
Just twice in the history of the playoffs has the winner at the Tour Championship not taken home the season-ending double, in ’08 when Vijay Singh only had to remain upright for four days at East Lake to win it all and in ’09 when Woods won the $10 million jackpot but lost to Phil Mickelson at the finale.
What little history there is here is rather clear - the regular season and the first three postseason stops serve a purpose, but it’s the Tour Championship that ultimately decides the outcome and smart guys like Spieth have figured that out.
“You can come in with different kinds of starting points from the regular season but you've got to have at least a pretty solid season in the back,” said Henrik Stenson, who won the cup in ’13 and finished runner-up to Spieth in ’15. “Then you have to play well in the first three playoff events to make sure that you're inside the top 30, and most of the guys who have won it I'm sure have been within the top 5.”
Only Horschel and Bill Haas in ’11 have played their way to the cup from outside that magic top 5, both by winning the finale.
But if the various postseason strategies have evolved, so has the playoff’s position of importance.
When Woods won the inaugural race in ’07 much was made of the fact that he didn’t kiss the cup the way he would the claret jug or Wanamaker Trophy in victory. Although it was likely just an inadvertent oversight on Woods’ part, the symbolic lack of love was a metaphor for the postseason’s place among the game’s biggest events.
Spieth’s commitment to treating the Tour Championship like a major is a sign of how that outlook has evolved, much like this week’s field at the playoff opener in New York is a snapshot of the cup’s growing status.
While five players are skipping The Northern Trust, those no-shows are largely due to injury, like Brandt Snedeker, or family priorities, such as Adam Scott who returned home to Australia to be with his wife for the birth of the couple’s second child.
The top 5 on the points list – Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas, Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler – are all in the field this week even though mathematically they are all assured a start next month at East Lake.
Some of that is positioning and the desire to arrive at the Tour Championship inside the top 5 on the points list, which assures the cup with a victory at the finale, but there’s also something to be said for playing an event because it’s important.
The playoff stops aren’t majors. They aren’t World Golf Championships, but they do resonate more now than they did a decade ago and this goes well beyond a potential financial windfall when you consider that Matsuyama has already collected more than $8 million in earnings.
Or maybe the best example of the playoffs' evolving stature can be found in the nuances of competition. No player has ever won the FedExCup in back-to-back seasons, “Because Jordan Spieth made 50-foot bombs when he shouldn't have. Next question,” cracked Stenson, who came in second in the season-long race to Spieth in ’15.
It was a joke, but a punch line laced with enough truth to make a point. For Stenson – whose name is already etched into the FedExCup, not to mention the claret jug, and probably doesn’t need another $10 million payday – that loss two years ago still stings. The season-long race is important because they players say it is.