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The Great Golf Relegation

How does golf stay exciting after the PGA Championship? A relegation tournament to close out the season.

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The prominent story lines heading into the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow this week were all around the stars at the top of the FedEx Cup standings. Can Jordan Spieth complete the Slam? Is Rory McIlroy ready to take back the belt at a course he owns? Will Dustin Johnson wake up out of his slumber? Could Hideki Matsuyama become the first Japanese-born player to win a major, and the first player ever to win a major while making commentators think he shanked every shot?

We’ll get those answers on Sunday, assuming we don’t get a repeat of the Rich Beem–Shaun Micheel shit show from 2002-2003, in which two random nobodies won the tournament and managed to diminish the profile of the season’s last major in the process. How prestigious could it really be if a couple of random hackers could hoist the Wanamaker Trophy in back-to-back years?

The PGA Championship has never really recovered from the brand damage. To try to fix it, the PGA of America announced this week that it’s moving the tournament to May starting in 2019, inadvertently giving the Open Championship even more gravitas as the season’s ultimate major, and paving the way for weeks of anticipatory buildup for the FedEx Cup Playoffs.

So with all the fanfare around the tournament this week, you might think golf will be on hiatus until the big stars start chasing the big money at the FedEx Cup Playoffs in two weeks. Only it won’t be. The week after the PGA Championship, there’s still one final tour event in the regular season—the Wyndham Championship. The Wyndham is unique in all of American sports for its drama and import, because for the little guys out of the limelight this week—the same random hackers who messed up the PGA Championship—their careers hang in the balance.

European soccer fans are well accustomed to the concept of relegation. Every year, the bottom three teams in the top soccer leagues across Europe get demoted to the minor leagues, while the top three teams in the minor leagues take their spots. It creates tantalizing anxiety in the last week of the season, usually for long-suffering fan bases of lovable losers, and it’s the best anti-tanking idea we’ve got in sports. So it should come as no surprise that relegation doesn’t exist in any of the major American pro sports leagues, which become full on Tankapalooza spectacles as the year winds down. But with the advent of the FedEx Cup point system in 2007, the creation of the Tour in 2013, and the eat-only-what-you-kill rigor of professional golf, the PGA has quietly established America’s only version of relegation. Here’s how it works:

  1. The top 125 guys in the FedEx Cup point standings keep their PGA Tour card, advance to the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and play on the tour again next year.
  2. The guys from 126-200 in the FedEx Cup point standings drop down to the playoffs (the Tour is golf’s version of the minor leagues, where the 25 highest money winners during the regular season are automatically promoted to the PGA Tour the following year). If they can finish in the top 25 in earnings across the four playoff events, they keep their PGA Tour card and return to the tour the next year. Otherwise they lose their card and get relegated to the Tour.
  3. The guys who finish 201-plus in the FedEx Cup point standings have to start their careers over from scratch.

There are a few exceptions (players who have won PGA tournaments before or have injuries get any number of exemptions), but that’s the cruel reality of being a pro golfer—you are constantly on edge, never fully secure, having to earn and defend your right to your job each week. It’s a glorious meritocracy. But if you’re not the Golden Child, you’re likely looking at the FedEx Cup standings more than the leaderboard each week. And heading into the last tournament of the 2017 regular season, the standings are tighter than a pennant race. Sam Saunders, the late Arnold Palmer’s grandson, sits at 127th. Andrew “Beef” Johnston is in danger of being, well, well-done at 185. My brother, Mark Hubbard, has finally fought his way into the top 200 after a disastrous start to the year, during which it was unclear who was the better golfer in the family (shut up, Mark, I’m going for effect here). He’s back to playing like a top-100 guy, and he’s hoping to get a chance to defend his card in the playoffs. There are dozens of guys on the bubble like Sam, Beef, and Mark, sitting at home right now watching the PGA Championship with the rest of us, thinking ahead to when the real action starts for them next week.

The Wyndham Championship is aptly named (kudos to the PGA for finding the tournament’s perfect sponsor). You never really want to be staying at a Wyndham, and none of the guys playing that tournament want to be there either. The tour’s best players will take the week off and rest up for the intensity of four tournaments in five weeks, competing for the $10M FedEx Cup prize. The guys who tee it up at the Wyndham will be there because they have to be if they want to be able to afford to stay at a Wyndham next year. And that’s what brings the high drama. Who will be relegated? Who will have to start from square one? Who has the (golf) balls to fight their way to safety for another year?

When the big names in golf stand over a putt, they know they’re going to make millions in sponsorships and prize money for the next decade, and that they’ll have a spot on tour for the foreseeable future. Other golfers stand over putts that determine if they’re going to have a job next year. For those players, golf is like life, only a little bit harder—they’re in complete control of their destiny, and there’s no one to blame if they don’t make it but themselves. When the year’s last major ends on Sunday and the PGA crowns its champion, keep paying attention into next week. That’s the start of the only relegation period in American sports, when the guys with real heart will be crowned.

(Let’s go, Mark!)

Nathan Hubbard is an unpaid intern for The Ringer. He was previously CEO of Ticketmaster, head of commerce and global media for Twitter, and a touring singer-songwriter. His next project is currently in stealth.