While professional and collegiate sports are on hiatus, theScore's writers are exploring what they'd do if this pause allowed for changes to the rules and structures of various leagues. In Part 7, the PGA Tour is on deck. Previous entries in the series examined MLB, the NHL, the NCAA, the NFL, the NBA, and the world of soccer.
Ever since the introduction of the FedEx Cup Playoffs in 2007, the PGA Tour has made attempts to perfect the postseason - without much success.
After Vijay Singh earned enough points to win the 2008 FedEx Cup without needing to play the Tour Championship, the system was revised to ensure the winner was actually required to compete at East Lake Golf Club. It was a good place to start.
The Tour then tried to simplify championship Sunday, giving the five players who entered the playoff finale atop the points leaderboard the chance to determine their own fate: Win the Tour Championship and you win the FedEx Cup.
Other players could still win the FedEx Cup depending on both their own results at the Tour Championship and those of the top five, but fans found the scenario-based system for determining players' chances of doing so to be far too confusing.
Moreover, the awkward situation of crowning two winners on Sunday - one for the tournament and one for the season points race - was occurring more often than the Tour had envisioned. Tiger Woods' Tour Championship win in 2018, which rightfully overshadowed Justin Rose's FedEx Cup victory, spurred another big change.
For 2019, the Tour converted the final event to a staggered-start format, wherein the points leader heading into East Lake began the tournament with a score of 10-under, with those trailing given starting scores based on their respective places on the points list. Rory McIlroy won the Tour Championship and lifted the FedEx Cup - a result the PGA Tour would find pleasing - but the change marked a missed opportunity to give golf's postseason the drastic overhaul it desperately needs.
So what's the solution? Match play.
Before we start revamping the Tour Championship itself, let's first cut the number of playoff qualifiers from 125 to 70. The top 125 in points can keep their Tour cards for the following year, but it's too large a field for postseason play. Sorry, but no one is dying to see Jonas Blixt in the playoffs.
After the first two postseason events, the top 20 players would qualify for the Tour Championship. That's a fair number that would give each of the most deserving players a legitimate chance to win the FedEx Cup - if they can survive a grueling match-play tournament.
In order to reward the season's best players and increase their chances of winning it all, each of the top four seeds would get a two-round bye and an automatic berth in the match-play quarterfinals. The prospect of free passes would also raise the stakes in earlier playoff events, as the difference between the fourth and fifth seeds would be significant.
The PGA Tour could then promote its giant $15-million first-place prize in a head-to-head match between two of the top 20 players on Tour that season. Yes, the runner-up would still earn $5 million, but playing for an additional $10 million would definitely stir up some drama.
The obvious rebuttal is that one match doesn't provide enough golf for a Sunday broadcast, but that issue could be easily solved with a third-place match worth a difference of $1 million, along with several other lesser duels with decent chunks of change on the line.
Not only does match play provide the FedEx Cup Playoffs with a single-elimination bracket already familiar to fans across other sports, but it provides the guarantee of a single champion for both the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup that the PGA Tour has been chasing since the inception of the postseason.
The PGA Tour is suited to a form of relegation similar to those of European soccer leagues better than any other major North American sports organization. But while soccer leagues wait until season's end to promote and demote clubs for the following campaign, the Tour should elevate and relegate players several times a year.
The reason for in-season relegation is simple: Ensure the best golfers are always playing on the PGA Tour. This was an issue two years ago when Sungjae Im found himself stuck on the Korn Ferry Tour instead of competing against the game's best.
Implementing a common points system between the PGA Tour and its feeder tours - the Korn Ferry Tour, Latinoamerica Tour, and Mackenzie Tour - is the first step. It would then be easier to determine which players on the Korn Ferry Tour are deserving of promotion to the big leagues, and vice versa; if a player misses six or seven straight cuts on the PGA Tour, he should probably be demoted.
A uniform timeframe after which players move up or down depending on results - say, three months or 10 tournaments - is also needed. In order for this to happen, the various tours would need to align their schedules better than they currently do to ensure the same number of events are played on each tour between relegation windows.
Currently, 125 players are granted full status on the PGA Tour at the end of each season, along with a laundry list of players with conditional statuses or other forms of exemption. In each of the past five seasons, roughly 250 players have competed in at least one PGA Tour event. That's far too many.
Perhaps a top 100 would make for a reasonable cutoff, with those ranked 101-125 on the FedEx Cup points list at risk of being demoted. Imagine the drama if someone like Jordan Spieth found himself on the brink of relegation after a run of bad form in the middle of the summer. He'd still be able to keep his exemptions for major championships, but he'd have to play his way back to the PGA Tour with strong performances on the Korn Ferry Tour.
This would also bring more attention to the Korn Ferry Tour, which is full of talented players waiting for their chance. Success in golf often occurs in short bursts, and allowing the best players on the Korn Ferry Tour to capitalize on hot streaks and ride them into PGA Tour events could make or break countless careers.
Club testing became a hot topic at the 2019 Open Championship when Xander Schauffele became the highest-profile player ever caught with a non-conforming driver; the spring-like effect between the clubface and the golf ball exceeded the legal characteristic time (CT) limit set by golf's governing bodies. Schauffele said he wasn't the only player to fail the R&A's test that week - and only 30 drivers were tested in a field of 156 golfers.
Fast forward to the 2019 Safeway Open: Of the 30 players to have their clubs tested, five were deemed to have non-conforming drivers. That's nearly 17%. Extrapolate that failure rate to a full 156-man field, and one could safely assume there are at least 20 illegal drivers in play every week.
The PGA Tour offered voluntary testing at the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open in a laughably weak attempt to discourage the use of drivers that could be close to the legal CT limit. Shockingly, no illegal drivers were reported.
The simple solution is to conduct mandatory driver tests every week for every player. There's nothing stopping the PGA Tour from implementing weekly tests other than the fear of backlash from manufacturers or players who have fallen in love with certain clubs.
Though the difference between a conforming and non-conforming driver may be a fraction of a yard here and there, it could be the deciding factor when a tournament is on the line and a player is able to carry a bunker or hazard by a couple of feet.
Illegal drivers also pose a problem for gambling. As the PGA Tour continues to open its doors to legalized sports betting, it must also tighten its policies around items that could impact the outcome of a tournament, such as equipment testing, rulings, and injuries.
Having players wear microphones during tournaments would vastly improve the PGA Tour's product.
First, it would enhance broadcasts that have barely evolved in the last 20 years. Audio from interactions between players or between a player and his caddie would be useful for telling the story of a tournament.
Not every word said by Woods or McIlroy needs to be aired because, let's face it, most small talk isn't very interesting. Rather, producers could hone in on crucial moments, like when a player and caddie are discussing strategy or club selection with the tournament at stake. Giving fans access to such conversations would do wonders for the viewing experience.
Microphones on players would also allow fans to get to know the golfers on a more personal level, rather than merely watching nicely dressed athletes swing clubs. Whether it aired conversations in real time or assembled highlight packages for publication afterward, as the NFL does, the PGA Tour could use the audio to market lesser-known players.