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Sunday, November 17, 2019

Thoughts on the CME Group Tour Championship

With this year's changes to the CME Group Tour Championship, there's been some debate over whether the changes are good or bad. Here are my thoughts.

Defending champion Lexi Thompson

The biggest criticism is the decision by CME Group to simply let the winner of the event win the CME Globe as well. Player #60, who barely made it in to the CME Group Tour Championship, has the same chance of winning as Player #1 who, in this case, is ridiculously far ahead in points.

Is it fair, the reasoning goes, to spend all year fighting for the top spots in the points rankings, only to have them rendered useless in the final event? In most playoff systems, the leaders get at least some advantage over the rest of the field. In the NFL, for example, the leaders in each division (AFC and NFC) get a one-week bye, which essentially is an extra week off to rest and an automatic berth in the second playoff round.

In fact, some have hesitated to say the LPGA has playoffs at all! Instead, they just have a final event. Does the LPGA's system need some more tweaking?

I think it does need a tweak... but not nearly to the extent that most of its detractors think.

The problem I see is that, for all the playoff systems we have in sports, nobody really seems to understand how they work. And once you do understand them -- I'll explain my understanding here -- you realize that the LPGA isn't far from having it right.

First, let's address the elephant in the room: Most sports simply don't have as many contestants to rank. Most team sports top out around 32 teams or so, and most individual sports have fewer than a typical field in golf. NASCAR, the most frequently compared sport, typically has 40 cars in a field and has never had more than 60. Playoffs in most sports cut to 16 or fewer competitors.

Normal professional golf fields typically have around 130-150 players. Obviously the logistics are a bit different!

Another fact rarely considered in discussions about golf playoffs is this: In most sports, the advantages gained by the top competitors are generally granted in the early stages of the playoffs, NOT in the final event itself. Looking back at the NFL, the bye weeks are granted in the first round only. The playoffs themselves are marked by cutting the field size.

The LPGA does have playoffs although they aren't currently called that. Instead, they're called the Fall Asia Swing. These events are invitationals, open only to players who qualify through the money list. None of those events has more than 62 LPGA players and the sponsor invitees into those events don't get CME Globe points.

At the end of the Fall Asia Swing, the 60 players who qualify from the CME Globe points list make it to the CME Group Tour Championship. It should be noted that the top players going into the Swing are pretty much guaranteed a spot in the final event, which is certainly an advantage for outstanding play all season.

The final point is this: In the final event of a sports season -- be it the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Stanley Cup or whatever -- whoever wins that event wins it all. I realize that in most (if not all) of those events, there are only two competitors. But that's a function of much smaller fields to begin with; the typical LPGA field is four times larger than the entire NFL!

The CME Group Tour Championship SHOULD be a winner-take-all event. If a player made it through the Fall Asia Swing -- or managed to compile enough points before the Swing to make the Top60 -- then they should win it all if they win the final event.

What tweak do I think the LPGA needs to make? Simply enough, they should shrink the CME Group Tour Championship field. I would vote for a 36-player field; that's enough to make it interesting but still elite enough make it tough to qualify. Plus 36 players allows for twosomes or threesomes, depending on how the weather plays out.

Furthermore, if they really want to ratchet up the tension, cut to 18 players after two rounds, with sudden death for ties to get exactly 18. The cut players would still get a payout based on how they finished, as a reward for making the event. But wouldn't that make for some frayed nerves?

The LPGA is really close to having their final event right -- perhaps closer than any of the other golf organizations. All they need is a smaller field for the final event.

And those are my thoughts. Make of them what you will.

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