Alternative histories are popular in non-fiction writing these days, so we thought we’d join in as the PGA Tour embarks on its new format at the Tour Championship this week to determine the winner of FedEx Cup.
For the first time, the 30 players competing at East Lake will begin play at a staggered, stroke-adjusted start based on their position on the FedEx Cup points list heading into Atlanta. No. 1 seed Justin Thomas begins the tournament at 10 under par, while No. 2 seed Patrick Cantlay starts at eight under. Each subsequent golfer on the list gets fewer strokes. Here’s how the leader board looks before the tournament officially begins.
In turn, the winner of the Tour Championship is guaranteed to be the winner of the FedEx Cup playoffs (or vice versa, depending on how you look at it), a fundamental reason for the change given the confusion in past years when you had separate titles up for grabs at East Lake.
“The beauty here is in the simplicity,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan a year ago upon announcing the new system. “Fans are very familiar with golf leader boards in relation to par, so they will have a clear understanding of the impact every shot makes during the final run for the FedEx Cup, ultimately leading to a singular champion without conflicting storylines.”
What if, however, the system that begins this week had been in place the previous 12 years of the FedEx Cup? How might history be different?
As it turns out, not all that much. And that’s the way the tour officials wanted it, having run thousands of computer simulations to try and approximate as best they could the point differential in play under the old system.
We went back all 12 years, took the top 30 in the FedEx Cup list entering East Lake and applied the adjusted strokes to the players scores at the Tour Championship to determine who would have won if the new format was used retroactively.
Nine times the actual FedEx Cup winner also would have won in the new strokes-based system, and a 10th time the winner (Jim Furyk in 2010) would have been in a sudden-death playoff for the title.
So which seasons would have had different outcomes? In 2008, the year Vijay Singh had wrapped up the FedEx Cup title before even playing the Tour Championship, Camilo Villegas would have knocked off Singh as the FedEx Cup champ.
Here’s how it would have played out: Villegas was second on the points list entering the finale, so he would have started the tournament at eight under. He then shot seven under over four days at East Lake, beating Sergio Garcia in a playoff. Villegas’ adjusted score would have been 15 under. Singh, meanwhile, tied for 22nd in the tournament, finishing at nine over par (remember all he had to do was play four rounds that year and he was guaranteed to be the FedEx Cup champ, so his incentive to grind in the event was minimal). Adding his 10 under start only gets him to one under, and Singh would have finished tied for 10th overall in the FedEx Cup race. (After 2008, the tour implemented a points reset entering the Tour Championship to prevent any golfer from clinching the Cup before the last event.)
The other year where things would have differed is 2011, as Luke Donald would have raised the FedEx Cup instead of Bill Haas. That year, Donald finished one shot out of a playoff between Haas and Hunter Mahan for the Tour Championship title, finishing at seven under. He was fourth on the points list entering East Lake, so his six-under bonus would have jumped him to 13 under. Haas, who beat Mahan in a playoff, shot eight under for the tournament but was only getting one stroke since he started the week 25th in FedEx Cup points. That would leave Haas at nine under total, putting him in a tie for fourth (with Mahan) when applying the new format.
As it turns out, that might have actually been Donald’s second straight FedEx Cup title. In 2010, Donald finished the Tour Championship one stroke back of Jim Furyk at seven under. But Donald started the week at four under having been seventh in FedEx Cup points. Furyk shot eight under, but his 11th place spot on the points list only got him a bonus of three strokes. So the two would have tied at 11 under total and needed a sudden-death playoff to determine the ultimate winner.
Long story short, in our alternative history, Luke Donald would have been a FedEx Cup legend.