Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Golf's FedEx Cup Brings Back Bad Memories to Tennis Fans

When I first heard about golf's FedEx Cup, I immediately thought of Bjorn Borg, who at least one writer still believes is the greatest tennis player of the Open Era. Borg played in his final Grand Slam event at the age of 25 at least in part because of the ridiculous and tyrannical rules that were imposed by tennis' governing bodies. For instance, Borg won Wimbledon five times (1976-80) and the French Open six times (1974-75, 1978-81) but starting in 1982 it was decreed that any player who did not participate in a minimum number of sanctioned events would have to take part in qualifiers to enter the main draw of tournaments. Borg--and some of the other leading players of his day--generally skipped the Australian Open to allow himself time to unwind and by 1982 he did not want to play a full schedule of events. That meant that Borg would have had to play in qualifiers at Wimbledon and the French Open in 1982, despite being the runner up and defending champion respectively in those events, a status that in a sane world would have made him one of the top seeds. Maybe Borg would have retired anyway but the way that his sport's rulers completely disregarded what the players thought was in their own best interests certainly made his decision to walk away that much easier.

What does this have to do with the FedEx Cup? Someone decided that it would be a grand idea to create a playoff system for golf and to reward the winner with $10 million to be applied toward his retirement plan. The scheduling and format of this playoff system were designed without consulting the sport's top players, who were presented with a fait accompli: here is your playoff system, take it or leave it. The top players decided to take it--more or less. Tiger Woods skipped one of the four events but played so mindbogglingly well in the other three (two wins and a tie for second) that he won the playoff anyway; Phil Mickelson also skipped one event but still took third place in the playoff. Woods' performance was so dominating that he actually would have won the playoff even if he had skipped the last event in addition to sitting out the first one. That proves that it is not correct to call the FedEx Cup a playoff; in a real playoff, a competitor cannot sit out one fourth to one half of the events and still win. Some have suggested that golf should impose rules similar to those that prevailed in tennis circa 1982 and not permit a golfer to sit out events and still win the FedEx Cup--but that would only make the situation worse, not better. I suspect that Woods and Mickelson would have elected to miss the whole thing rather commit to all four events and the result would have been that a lesser player would have been crowned the champion. In any case, that is where this is headed unless golf's leaders come to their senses. Elite players need a break at some point. As Borg once explained, "When I boycotted the Australian, I was trying to make a statement. I had made my mind up. My point was that a player requires some time to himself, he can't keep rushing from one court to another all the time without a break. They all heard me say that, but no one did anything about it. So I did it myself, I skipped the Australian and gave myself the time I needed."

To play the complete FedEx Cup schedule involves participating in tournaments for four consecutive weekends after the players have already gone through a whole season of golf. Since it comes after the Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship and prior to the Presidents Cup, a player would have to compete in seven tournaments in nine weeks if he did not choose to sit out one weekend as Woods and Mickelson did. Woods has not played tournament golf on four consecutive weekends since 2000. It is easy for the average Joe to scoff at the players' complaints and to declare that if he had the chance to play for $10 million that he would do whatever it took to participate. That is not a realistic scenario. If the average Joe were good enough at golf to have a legitimate chance to win the FedEx Cup then he would not want to risk shortening his career by playing too many weeks in a row. Or think of it like this: if you have already earned the amount of money you expect/need to earn in a given year would you just leap at the chance to work overtime and make more money at the possible risk of shortening your career and/or losing time with your family? The players are the ones who make any sport go and they should have a voice in decisions that directly affect their careers. The last thing that golf needs to do is alienate its best performers.

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