How to fix the PGA Tour Playoffs

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As we approach the final weekend of the PGA Tour season we once again hear the debates of how the sport should conduct its playoffs. This will be the second year that at the Tour Championship, the starting scores will be staggered based on the standings. For example, Dustin Johnson, the top-ranked golfer throughout the season, will begin the tournament with a score of 10-under par. Jon Rahm is in 2nd and will begin at 8-under par, and that will continue to move through the final 30 golfers with Billy Horschel ultimately starting the event at even par, 10 shots behind DJ. 

The older scoring system just had the final 30 golfers compete in one last tournament with the FedEx Cup standings still intact and whoever had the most points at the end of the week won the FedEx Cup. The major issue was this did not always see the golfer who wins the Tour Championship winning the FedEx Cup which led to difficulties for the fans trying to track both the overall season standings and the leaderboard of the final event.

Can’t the winner of the Tour Championship also be the champion of the tour? The tour needed to find a way to make the regular season still matter but award the “Tour’s ultimate prize” to the winner of the last event. To me, this new system was just a quick fix solution that will once again be changed in the near future.

Issues with current system

If you were to ask any professional golfer, their main priorities throughout the calendar year is to win majors; not to win the FedEx Cup. I’m sure any golfer on tour would be happy to accept a $15 million bonus check but when their careers come to an end, they will be remembered for Major Championships. That, in itself, presents a challenge to the PGA Tour. They are trying to market their “Ultimate Prize” to fans even though the golfers say it is not the most important thing to them throughout the season.

One other major issue with the current playoffs is that the tour has not found a way to give everyone who gets in a chance to win the title. If a golfer limps into the final event they currently begin the first round 10 shots behind the leader; an almost insurmountable deficit to overcome. One of the things fans love about sports is cheering for the underdog and pulling for a Cinderella story. This barely exists on the PGA Tour with the current playoff format.

For a number of reasons, the tour has constantly struggled to capture a younger audience for its events. They have been unwilling to restructure their broadcasts in a way to create more excitement and bring in new types of viewers. Whether we want to admit it or not, sports betting is gaining popularity in a way it never has before. For those of us who take part in golf betting, we know that it is one of the best gambling experiences that a sports bettor can find. It is spread over four days, there is a dramatic cut half way through, and there are a dozen different ways to get in on the action. 

The tour has almost purposely refused to discuss the gambling implications throughout a broadcast. Other professional sports have adapted to this trend and in return seen their popularity grow. The NFL markets fantasy football relentlessly because they understand how it can impact their ratings. The PGA Tour relies on their star names to carry the ratings but if those premier golfers don’t care about the tour’s final event, how is the viewer expected to either?

If only there was a way to turn it into an event that all types of sports fans would want to watch, give all the golfers a fair shot of winning, and simultaneously appeal to the betting market. Seems like there is one main sporting event throughout the year that brings in fans that know nothing about the sport, makes “betting” an emphasis, and adds importance to the regular season due to the exclusivity of getting picked to be in the final field. The NCAA basketball March Madness tournament is a model that the PGA Tour could follow and it would be a homerun.

PGA Tour Championship starting chart

New playoff system

The current playoffs are spread over a three week period. The first round has the top 125 golfers from the regular season compete in an event with the hopes of moving their way into the top 70 in order to advance on to the next round. I wouldn’t change anything here except for limiting the 2nd round to the top 64 golfers remaining. Keep the same stroke play format for the first round and play the same four day event. At the end of Sunday’s round, the top 64 remaining golfers would pack their bags and head to the next course where the true fun would begin. 

At the conclusion of the first event, the 64-person bracket would be set and Thursday would mark the beginning of the 1st round of the tournament. Over the course of the next four days the field would be narrowed down to the final 16 who would then make their way to East Lake for the true Tour Championship. The schedule for this first week would look something like the following:

Thursday / Friday: First Round

Saturday / Sunday: Round of 32

With 64 golfers in the field, the first round would consist of 32 head-to-head matchups spread over the course of two days. Moving on to the weekend, Saturday and Sunday would each see 8 matchups played ultimately giving us our final 16 golfers left to head to Atlanta.

The Tour Championship schedule would then be the following:

Thursday: Sweet 16

Friday: Elite 8

Saturday: Final Four (36 hole matchups)

Sunday: Championship Match (36 hole matchup)

To add to the drama, the Final Four and the Championship match would be a 36-hole matchup as opposed to just the normal 18 hole round. This is a similar approach that has been adapted to the US Amatuer Championship

If the PGA Tour wants all eyes on the broadcast, place two golfers head-to-head for $15 million and they will get just that. The sheer drama of playing a matchup for that amount of money would bring out the competitive edge in all the golfers on tour and in return would add to the excitement for the fans watching. This would also ensure that all remaining 64 golfers would have a fair chance to win the title. It is unlikely that the 64th ranked golfer would beat Dustin Johnson in an 18-hole matchup, but it was also unlikely for that to happen in the NCAA Tournament until UMBC did just that.

The PGA Tour needs to find a way to garner more interest around their sport. The non-sports fan who will only watch a game if their favorite team is playing or if their friends are watching will not flip on the TV to find out who wins the BMW Championship. But if that same person can fill out a bracket and get swept up in the drama over those next two weeks seeing if their final four is correct, then the PGA Tour will get a whole new set of eyes on their product. 

The PGA Tour concludes its season in September. This just happens to be six months after the drama of March Madness. If there was ever a time to bring the sports world collectively together around a single event it would be before the NFL begins, after the NBA playoffs end, and half a year removed from the other bracket building experience. Golf has this specific set of time to pull off something great. 

In short, the PGA Tour playoffs need to be innovated. Make it an event that everyone can partake in and enjoy together. I would kill for a few days of anticipation leading up to a Brooks Koepka vs Bryson DeChambeau matchup. The storylines would never be better, the drama would never be as big, and it would be a spectacle that the whole sports world can get behind together. I can already envision the bracket pools now where Rory McIlroy gets knocked out in the first round and I tear up my bracket, much like I do with Duke every year. Your move PGA Tour. 

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