PGA Tour ushers in playoffs

Blooming azaleas, lush fairways, crowds loath to do more than whisper around the putting greens: all are familiar images at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the famed Masters tournament. This year's battle for the green jacket, which begins April 5, brings a curious interloper in the form of roaring stock cars.

No, Tiger Woods hasn't taken up NASCAR racing, but Woods and the rest of the PGA Tour are taking their cues, in part, from stock-car racing. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem eyed NASCAR's points-and-playoff system when designing the FedEx Cup, a new golf format launched this year in hopes of ushering in a playoff-style finale – and keeping fans interested beyond major championships such as, well, the Masters.

Much like NASCAR's championship format, golfers will earn points based on each week's finish in order to qualify for the more lucrative playoff tournaments. Each week of the golf playoffs will feature smaller tournament fields, a move aimed at ratcheting up the pressure on the competitors while giving fans an irresistible story line similar to the do-or-die playoffs in the NFL and Major League Baseball.

"We didn't have a compelling season structure," says Ric Clarson, the PGA Tour's senior vice president of brand marketing. "We had a season centered on the majors and with a lot of focus on when Tiger played and when he didn't."

The PGA Tour also had a television contract about to expire, hastening the need for a more dramatic, season-long narrative arc capable of boosting ratings and, in turn, winning guaranteed broadcast rights fees from NBC, CBS, and The Golf Channel.

Beginning in January, the FedEx Cup became the new formula for determining golf's season champion. The PGA Tour has defined a 33-week regular season, followed by a month-long playoff in August and September consisting of four tournaments. At stake: $35 million in bonus money for top finishers, including $10 million to the season champion. The big-money bonuses aim to attract top players such as Woods and Phil Mickelson to play more tournaments, as they typically focus on the major championships and ignore smaller events.

By enticing top players and defining the season, the PGA Tour also hopes to boost TV ratings, increasing its chances by finishing the playoff in mid-September, before baseball's World Series and college and pro football claim a stranglehold on sports fans' attention. That is a change from past years, when the PGA Tour staged its final significant tournament in November, often lost amid a blizzard of football games.

"I think it's good [having] a shortened season," says Johnny Miller, NBC's top golf analyst. "You've got a crescendo effect in the end."

For many golf fans, the season doesn't begin in earnest until the Masters, the season's first major championship and the most-watched golf event during most years. To be sure, the major tournaments will retain their luster because more FedEx Cup points are awarded for the Masters and four other major events than for the rest of the season schedule.

The season-long chase culminates in Atlanta with The Tour Championship Sept. 13-16. This final event of the season represents a nifty bit of symmetry. Legendary golfer Bobby Jones designed Augusta National, the home course of the Masters and site of the season's first major. Jones learned the game at East Lake Golf Club, site of the Atlanta season finale in September.

Broadcasters and tour executives realize most fans remain unaware of the new championship format and its nuances. In other words, conveying the gospel of the FedEx Cup won't be an overnight delivery – it requires constant explanation and definition. The payoff, organizers say, will become more apparent as the new system takes flight.

"It's going to pick up at the Masters and then, after the U.S. Open [in June], you're going to start hearing a lot of talk about the playoffs," says Mr. Clarson, the PGA Tour executive. "This isn't intended to supplant the majors; it's a complement to them. It's a new measure of achievement."

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