x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Heads get lost in the numbers

The FedExCup formula is such a mystery that players confessed they could not decipher it. Coverage was ... like watching political election coverage, low-tech style.

Golf fans at the Tour Championship last weekend could be forgiven if they left the season's farewell PGA Tour event wondering what had just transpired.

Most of them understood that Bill Haas beat Hunter Mahan on the third hole of sudden death to win the tournament. But tracking the FedExCup competition - worth US$10 million (Dh36.7m) to the winner - was a confusing task, even with the help of a second leader board that tracked the ever-changing projections for the cup points standings.

As golfniks know, the cup competition was installed five years ago to reward year-long excellence and create a four-week play-off. For this, credit – or blame – Nascar.

While golf and stock car racing are as culturally apart as a debutante ball and a square dance, they share a common challenge. Their schedules span nearly the entire calendar, which places the climactic events up against baseball pennant races, the awakening of professional basketball and ice hockey, and, most dauntingly, American football.

As interest in Nascar flattened after years of growth, organisers - shouting "Hey, look at me" amid the sporting clatter - wheeled out the Chase to the Championship in 2004. The format, through trial and error, has been fine turned to where a dozen designated drivers now conduct a mini-competition during the final 10 races.

The PGA Tour took Nascar's cue with its own attention-getter: the tournament within a tournament. The final four stops on the tour double as the play-offs. The first three offer full fields before the finale - The Tour Championship - is crunched to 30 players.

In contrast to the Nascar system, the PGA makes all 30 eligible for the FedEx title, though on a sliding scale.

Rule of thumb in sports: keep it simple whenever numbers are involved. When the Cup winner, Haas, winds up with 2,760 points, it is time to downsize the scoring.

The cup formula is such a mystery that players routinely confessed they could not decipher it. Network television coverage was periodically interrupted by a chap next to an easel pad, scratching four-digit numbers alongside names to estimate possible cup points totals for each. It was like watching political election coverage, low-tech style.

Nearly every sentence included "if" at least once: if Luke Donald finishes third, he will win the cup, if …

The PGA Tour's intent is understandable. Money talks. It shouts on television. Always has, since the dawn of quiz programmes where contestants vied for cash prizes. Modern quiz shows now have massive jackpots - the bigger, the better - to attract viewers and media coverage. With that in mind, the Tour staged Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? 10 times over by dangling such a huge bonus for the cup championship.

The windfall also is intended to maintain the interest of wealthy players, whose minds tend to wander at this time of year to the hunting season or the football teams at their former universities.

The set-up resulted in odd scenes such as Sunday's with Webb Simpson, who was on top of the cup standings when the first ball was struck last Thursday.

Simpson played dreadfully, shooting a final round of 73 to eventually finish 22nd. He had to stick around the course for hours, accepting well-wishes and encouragement as his name toggled between first and second on the projected points list before the play-off. "I don't know a whole lot," he said at one point about his prospects.

The cup does inject an extra layer of drama as players try to pretend they can mentally block out a bonus large enough to pay for a Kardashian sister's wedding.

Justin Rose was among those who acknowledged that the amount is never far from his conscience.

"I [first] saw the number and I was like, 'Whoa, that's a big cheque'," he said. "What makes the FedExCup a huge challenge is to deal with the pressure of the $10m and keep your game in shape."

Yet, while the consensus of players applauds the approach, the formula invites nit-picking. The cup race boiled down to a pair, Haas and Mahan, who had combined for zero wins all year before Sunday.

It was Haas who collected the $10m, although even he wasn't sure he had won the big prize until he was standing beside the 18th green for an interview.

"Both trophies were there and there was no other player," he said. "I looked at my wife and she nodded her head, so that was when I realised."

Maybe, in such a crowded American sports universe, gimmicks for anything non-football are necessary. Still, the cup diverts focus from a nice tournament that should stand on its own.

"It's kind of sad for the Tour Championship in a way because it kind of gets lost," Mahan said after the third round, "and this is really one of the most prestigious tournaments of the year."

Who would have known?