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10 years in, the FedExCup is thriving despite football’s shadow

Golf’s playoff month hasn’t always been perfect. But in Indianapolis on Sunday, signs of the event’s growth were omnipresent.

BMW Championship - Round Three Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

CARMEL, INDIANA — Indianapolis, itself, is a football town.

You’ll still get argument from some on that front. They’ll say it’s still a basketball town, that this state gave the world Hoosiers, Oscar Robertson and the Hoosiers, Boilers and Bulldogs. Or they’ll say it’s the motorsports capital of the world. The Indy 500 packs in hundreds of thousands into a few square miles over on 16th Street every May, and the city’s place as a regular Final Four, Super Bowl and Pan Am Games host can be tied to those roots. But, after years of Manning, this is a football town.

Right as Dustin Johnson was cruising through the back nine en route to his victory at the BMW Championship in suburban Carmel, the Indianapolis Colts kicked off the 2016 NFL season at Lucas Oil Stadium a half-hour to the south. It’s the exact scenario tournament organizers wanted desperately to avoid: a home Colts game on the final Sunday of the event. The Colts’ leadership, seeing no reason to compete against another sporting event good for the city, attempted to comply and submitted to the NFL a request to avoid a home opener on Sept. 11, 2016. The NFL didn’t care and plopped the Colts with a Week 1 home game anyway.

It’s the perfect embodiment of the PGA Tour’s Fall Problem — football — and it’s a problem without a perfect solution.

But on a packed, beautiful Sunday afternoon in central Indiana, there was evidence the imperfect solution might just be working.

Creating prestige for a golf event — and thus turning it into must-see TV — isn’t easy. One doesn’t need to look any further than the battle Olympic golf has waged to gain mind space among the players. Some on Tour still roll their eyes at the idea of The Players Championship being a “Fifth Major” and find it to be gimmicky. That tournament is nearly 40 years old. The Open and the US Open are well over a century old. The PGA Championship will play its 100th edition in 2018. The Masters is over 80. Getting a brand new event to hold the same cache as those on prestige alone is futile.

So how does one get a new series of events to matter in the eyes of players and fans? Lots and lots and lots of cash. But even the $10 million prize didn’t cure the FedExCup of all its ills early on. Constant points structure changes nearly every year, rotating sites and a lack of early player buy-in made it difficult for the month-long event to gain footing. But 10 years after Tiger Woods took home the initial “annuity payment” of $10 million, the FedExCup finally has a foothold — despite changes that will probably still come.

“It seems to have gotten a lot of traction among the casual golf fans that I talk to,” said Matt Kuchar. “The players all kind of understand it, nobody really knows how the points are going to play out, it’s just too many variables going on, it’s too much math for anyone to try to do in their head. But I think that the golf fan has learned the system pretty well and I think they got a good system in place.”

The money’s worked, and the system’s working well enough that the top players in the world are at every event. But getting fans interested as football ramps up? That’s another story.

PGA: BMW Championship Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Barclays and Deutsche Bank tournaments in New York and Boston have drawn big crowds in recent weeks, but don’t have the football problem the BMW and its Western Golf Association organizers are presented with yearly. Part of the solution? Rotating venues. Indianapolis hadn’t seen top level men’s professional golf in the city since the 1991 PGA Championship when the WGA first brought the BMW Championship to the city in 2012.

Despite rains and low scores, an impressive showing at the gate from fans and support from volunteers brought the tournament back four years later. It’s a recipe for success that can help events avoid becoming stale in the Western Open’s former home of Chicago, and help mitigate against the nightmare scenario of a home NFL game on the event’s final Sunday. That might not help in the TV ratings battle against the giant that is the NFL, but, hey, it’s something.

“When the FedExCup was first proposed, it was to cut the season short and end before football. Then it kind of went into Weeks 2 and 3 of football,” Kuchar, one of the Tour’s most candid and honest players, said. “And then there was this idea that there was a rollover of eyeballs, so people are just in front of TVs. I think that’s been a bit of a misconception.

“Football is king. It’s hard to compete against the NFL, and I think the PGA Tour’s working to combat that.”

He’s right. The PGA Tour won’t be supplanting football’s role in the American public’s Sunday routine any time soon. Attempting to do so would be the work of a fool. But with savvy scheduling, smart venue selection and big name winners continuing to take home the titles, the Tour can at least carve out some space for itself. Indianapolis isn’t a huge city — there’s a limited population here to support multiple sporting events in one day. Fans here had a choice on Sunday: live golf or live NFL football. A large amount chose golf. That’s, again, something.

And 10 years in, those somethings are enough to keep the FedExCup alive and thriving.