Golf has finally gone full NASCAR.
Of course the PGA Tour has forgotten, but that was the plan to begin with.
And now, some 12 years after Tiger Woods won the first FedEx Cup trophy, the season-ending “playoff” has evolved into a system more contrived than the stock-car boys ever dreamed.
Even NASCAR hasn’t given Kyle Busch a two-lap lead at Homestead.
Only three weeks ago, we were getting ready for the Wyndham Championship and pondering the future with Jordan Spieth in Greensboro and Tiger and Phil and the biggest names in the sport preparing for the unknown.
It’s upon us now, and we’re headed into the new and improved playoffs with a new scoring matrix, no Tiger, Phil or Spieth, but a very real possibility we’ll see a side-by-side Sunday showdown between Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy.
Or maybe Patrick Cantlay and Abraham Ancer.
The truth is, what we saw last week, last month and last year was a new game we’ve never seen, a sport rendered defenseless by equipment overpowering course architects and a realization that anyone can now win on any course in any given week.
The trophy now goes not to the best golfer but to the hottest.
And the newest playoff structure plays right into it.
In a sense, it always has. But aside from a couple of winners, Bill Haas and Billy Horschel, the Tour Championship has gone to the best players almost every year. A win by anyone other than Thomas, McIlroy, Brooks Koepka or even Patrick Reed would be an upset but not a shock.
After having seen the players render mighty Medinah toothless, we now know the PGA Tour has given up trying to rein in modern equipment makers, lowering the bar for everyone for the sake of entertainment.
But is this really the same game we watched growing up? Is this what the modern game has become?
Woods was asked about it last week at Medinah, and he basically described the entire sport in less than a minute.
“That’s the way the new game is played,” he said. “Now, you just pull out driver, bomb it down there, and you’re looking for three to four good weeks a year. That’s how you play. It’s not the consistency, it’s not about making a bunch of cuts. It’s about having three, four good weeks a year. That’s the difference. The guys understand that.”
They also understand that the money will come eventually. The Wyndham bore the brunt of that new realization, the top players opting out of the tournament despite the Wyndham Rewards Top 10 and the millions available to them, knowing that even more millions awaited them at the end of the playoffs.
The top players aren’t out to feed their families anymore. They’re feeding financial advisers, agents, swing coaches, analysts and psychologists.
It’s no longer drive for show and putt for dough. Now it’s bomb it and show me the money.
The charm of the game has suffered as a result. The players just don’t seem as lovable or even as irascible as the old pros. Most of them now are cardboard cutouts who can hit the ball 350 yards.
Last week, on the par-3 13th at Medinah, a hole that measured about 190 yards and can play as long as 245 yards, players were hitting 8-irons.
At Pinehurst last week, where the U.S. Amateur was played in the idyllic Sandhills at two Donald Ross masterpieces, we saw how the game was once played and could be played again.
The atmosphere was breezy, the players seemed human, and the game seemed controlled by nature and not nurture. It was about the sport and not the manufacturers. And they played for a trophy, not tax-deferred retirement account deposits.
We’ve lost something, and it seems to have come into focus this year. Apparently, the Tour is comfortable with it.
The game has changed forever.
This week, we’ll watch the final 30 golfers who qualified for the final event in a race for $15 million in cash and deferments, all chasing Justin Thomas, who is already 10 under par and two laps ahead of the field.
The checkered flag falls Sunday, just up the road from Atlanta Motor Speedway.