Ben Coley on revamped FedEx Cup and new TOUR Championship scoring system

Tiger Woods winning at East Lake in 2018
Tiger Woods winning at East Lake in 2018

On September 23, 2018, Tiger Woods held back the tears as he led a thousand disciples down the final hole of the TOUR Championship.

Five years on from the second coming came the third - an 80th victory on the PGA Tour. In a sport desperate for focal points and lost without Woods, this was the iconic image of the year: not Brooks Koepka lifting two majors, not Patrick Reed slipping on a green jacket, not Francesco Molinari quietly dismantling Carnoustie. Tiger Woods was back.

In the group ahead, Justin Rose battled all the way to the clubhouse and arrived there exhausted, but ready to accept a cheque for $10million. Rose had led the FedEx Cup at the end of the 48th and final tournament of the season, one in which he'd won twice - including a valuable World Golf Championship - and finished inside the top 20 of all four majors. He was the best player not only according to points earned but also a top-three finishes in one third of his starts, and was duly rewarded at the end of the Playoffs.


Sean Foley knows Woods and Rose well.

It was under Foley's tutelage that Woods won five times in 2013 and while they've been apart since the following autumn, the Canadian looks back upon their time together with fondness and pride. He's been Rose's coach for a decade and during that time has filled a small part of the void left by Rose's father, Ken, who died in 2002. When Rose won the US Open at Merion, the year in which Woods was winning just about everything else, he did so after a message from his coach: 'Go out on the course and represent your father.' That's exactly what Rose did.

Six years later, Foley celebrated alongside his star pupil. "This isn’t about the money. It’s about being the best player on Tour for the year," said the swing-coach-turned-wellness-guru. "His vision of greatness is about more than paychecks and planes and all that."

For Rose, this season-long validation undoubtedly struck a chord: this is, after all, the player who missed 21 cuts in succession after turning professional as a can't-miss kid. Winning the FedEx Cup, reaching number one in the world, marking 20 years since his amateur dramatics at The Open with an overdue top-five as a professional - these are things that matter more to him than they might to someone else. Someone like Woods.


"It’s been 20 years since the kid in the red shirt changed golf forever." Sean Foley, 2017


In 1996, aged 20, Woods sat across from Curtis Strange to discuss his move to the professional ranks. "I know I'm good enough to do it, it's just a matter of doing it," he said, with the sort of quiet confidence which had already begun to rankle the major winner opposite. Strange replied with a question: "What would be a successful week here in Milwaukee?" What follows is part of golfing folklore, just one of the pages in an early chapter of the remarkable tale of the most remarkable player in the history of the sport.

"A victory would be awfully nice," says Woods, as if winning on the PGA Tour is the most normal thing in the world; nothing more than another step along his path to greatness. Strange is visibly offended and interrupts Woods having asked him to expand. Looking him in the eye, Woods tells Strange that "second sucks... I want to win, it's just my nature."

The reply from Strange is as infamous as Alan Hansen's 'you can't win anything with kids' remark in a London television studio a year earlier: "You'll learn." It took Woods one month to teach him a lesson. By the end of the second, he'd won twice.

For Woods, success was as immediate as it had been expected. For Rose, the path was altogether different. Two decades after they'd both entered the world of professional golf, the camera lens captured them in a moment of symbiotic beauty: Woods doing what he has done ever since 1996, Rose completing a journey which began in 1998.


On September 18, 2018, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan unveiled plans to revamp the end-of-season FedEx Cup Playoffs - starting in 2019.

The first headline was that the Playoffs would be reduced from four tournaments to three and scheduled to conclude at the end of August, rather than clash with football or, in Monahan's words, to allow golf "to own the sporting calendar". For those of us looking on from Europe, it seemed a defensive move; to those in America, it appears to have been accepted not just as logical, but necessary.

Then came the more controversial element: a new scoring system which would allow a streamlining of silverware at the TOUR Championship. Where Rose won the FedEx Cup trophy and Woods the 'Calamity Jane', only the latter will now be on offer. Whoever wins the TOUR Championship will also be able to call themselves the FedEx Cup champion.

To get to this point, the PGA Tour consulted with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and determined that the leader in FedEx Cup points entering East Lake, home of the TOUR Championship, should begin the event on 10-under, the second on eight-under, the third seven-under, the fourth six-under and the fifth five-under. From there come segments: sixth to 10th get four-under; 11th to 15th three-under; 16th to 20th two-under; 21st to 25th one-under; 26th to 30th level.

In other words, if Rose leads the FedEx Cup, he will begin the TOUR Championship with his score displaying 10-under. If Woods sits 26th or worse - he started the Playoffs in 28th - that means he'll have to beat Rose by at least 10 shots if he's to win not only the FedEx Cup, but the TOUR Championship: a golf tournament in its own right. Being the best player at East Lake will no longer be enough.

The PGA Tour answered such concerns by reframing the argument. According to their research, the only FedEx Cup winner who would've been denied by the new system is Bill Haas, who was famously unaware of his position when brazenly splashing from lake swimmer to lottery winner in a play-off with Hunter Mahan. Instead, assuming for a second that all the details of the golf were unaffected by the system, Luke Donald would have landed the loot. There would have been no play-off.

The PGA Tour neglected to mention the other player who shot the best score in the TOUR Championship but would not have earned a trophy for it: Xander Schauffele. In 2017, he produced a remarkable display to become the first rookie to win the event in 30 years. Evidently, his nervous stab at what proved to be the final putt, one which slid into the side of the hole, was neither dramatic nor simple enough to be counted as evidence in mitigation to the grand plan.

The reality is that all back-dating is irrelevant. The new scoring system will have an immediate effect on the golf that takes place, and there is a chance that Jordan Spieth is right in predicting high drama. Spieth, who threatened to steal the FedEx Cup from Thomas in 2017, says that playing with the lead at East Lake encourages defensive golf and expects a concertina effect on the leaderboard from an early stage, guaranteeing the sort of drama the PGA Tour have long been desperate to create manually when all evidence says it is more powerful when allowed to develop naturally.

If Spieth is proven to be correct, it won't be because he's played the percentages. It's not necessary to consult with MIT to realise that handing an in-form player a two-shot lead before they begin, with as many as 10 shots on 17 per cent of the field, increases the prospect of a widening of the gap which had been built in previous weeks. Already the TOUR Championship limits the number of potential winners in a maximum field of 30; spreading them out before they hit a ball seems at best counter-intuitive, at worst reckless pandering to a sponsor.

And there we have the nub of it. This change has not occurred because fans aren't capable of keeping up with two distinct competitions running in unison - were that true, we wouldn't get FedEx Cup updates during Sundays all year long - and it hasn't occurred because the last two editions would have been more dramatic had two prizes gone to one player.

It has occurred because FedEx pay a lot of sponsorship money and want to be the story, not the subtext. It's a great shame that it has come to this.


It's August 25, 2019, the final day of the PGA Tour season. Just as he had been a year earlier, Tiger Woods is the best player at East Lake. On Sunday, he outscores Justin Rose, just as he had on Saturday. Four rounds of 65 for 20-under see Woods end the week with a scorecard which not one player in the history of the event has bettered - except Woods himself, in 2007, when he somehow reached 23.

In less than 24 hours, Woods will be awarded Official World Golf Ranking points for being the best player in the tournament - just how it has always been. But the trophy? That goes to Rose, who entered East Lake ranked first in FedEx Cup points after winning a week earlier and, under the new scoring system, began the event on 10-under-par, a fabricated score he advanced to 25 by the end of play.

Woods, at 28th in the standings, had a 10-shot deficit to overcome. In beating Rose by five, just as he had in 2018, this time he fails by five. There is no drama to speak of.

Woods remains on 81 PGA Tour wins. Sam Snead is on 82. The TOUR Championship is no longer a golf tournament.

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