GREENSBORO, N.C. — On the ninth hole at Sedgefield Country Club, Billy Hurley III missed a 22-foot birdie putt by inches. There were no groans from the gallery when he missed, and only tepid applause when he tapped in for his par. It was Hurley’s last hole of the Wyndham Championship, and thus the last hole of his 2017-’18 PGA Tour regular season. Everything about it screamed anticlimax, and that mood permeated most of the day. The crowds were sparse, the air was unbearably humid, and sporadic storm clouds threatened before moving on their languid way. Even the course wasn’t putting up a fight—birdies fell like pars, and the field was like a massive peloton fighting its way to 20 under.
Greensboro, N.C., is proud of its championship, and everything runs with the usual competence, but this is not a flagship tour event. The field, if it’s not the weakest of the entire year, comes close. The best players tend to stay away to get some rest after a long summer and with the FedEx Cup playoffs next on the schedule … unless they absolutely must come. On the World Ranking, you have to scroll down to No. 16—Hideki Matsuyama—before finding the highest-ranked player to make the trip to the Piedmont.
And yet, belying the lackluster atmosphere, there are very real, very personal, and very hidden acts of drama playing out on this course. Hurley thought he needed that putt on the ninth hole, and though nobody else realized it, and though you wouldn’t see the shot on TV, the stakes—at least for him—were quite high. He was playing in the last year of a full exemption after winning the 2016 Quicken Loans Invitational, and it had not been a dream season. As you’d expect for someone that far down the points list—he began the week 202nd—his 2018 story is a story of missed cuts.
Yet, though he didn’t know it at that moment he missed that final birdie putt, Hurley was projected to finish 200th in the FedEx Cup standings. If Hurley could finish 200 or better, he would earn a spot in the Web.Com Tour Finals series. From there, he could fight against a field of 150 golfers—75 from the PGA Tour, 75 from the Web.com—for one of 25 PGA Tour cards for next season. But if he stayed at 202 or 201, no such luck.
There are a few different cut-offs at the Wyndham—the most notable being trying to get into the top 125 and qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. But the one facing Hurley, the 200 line, was the darkest. Miss it, and your best bet may be the Web.com qualifying school. Fail there, and you’ve gone from the PGA Tour to nothing in the span of a year.
In Hurley’s case, he could use his status as a past champion for partial exemption, so his worst-case scenario was not as dire. But it still wasn’t great, and he still wanted that 200 ranking badly. At the moment when he made his par on No. 9, he had it, and so I expected to find someone happy, or at least relieved, at the scoring tent.
He was neither. “I thought I had to do more,” he said. “But it looks like Sangmoon did more for me.”
Bae’s two-over 72 on Sunday took him out of the top 200 as well, and was currently Hurley’s saving grace. But Hurley still wasn’t convinced—he mentioned the possibility of Blayne Barber making a late birdie, and hinted at various unforeseen forces that could diminish his finish by percentage points … enough to put Smylie Kaufman back at position 200, and leave himself scrambling in 2019.
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Hurley wasn’t alone in his battle. The most public of the private dramas belonged to Sergio Garcia, who came in ranked 131st—six spots outside the top 125, and thus six spots outside of qualifying for the FedEx Cup playoffs. It wasn’t quite life-or-death, since Garcia has full status for the next few seasons thanks to his 2017 Masters win. But he had the added element of Ryder Cup pressure, and the need to impress Thomas Bjorn in his increasingly dim fight for a captain’s pick on the European team.
Garcia came close. At 3:40 p.m., with the front nine behind him, the Spaniard was one shot clear of the cut-off. Then he made bogey on three of five holes—betrayal of the driver and the wedge—and he fell back into the shadowlands. The beneficiary was Seamus Power, who missed the cut here on Friday, but who now rose from 126th to 125th. Garcia had a chance to rescue himself, but he needed more than the two birdies he managed coming in. How he felt when he finished 128th is anybody’s guess—he managed to sneak away before any journalist could brave the difficult approach.
Nick Taylor faced a similar situation, starting out 129th on the FedEx Cup points list, but in arguably one of the biggest rounds of his life, he played superb. His bogey-free 63 on Sunday vaulted him to 119th, and spared him the pain of having to grind to the finish.
Harris English was not so lucky. Starting 132nd, the two-time PGA Tour winner needed a miracle. At least by his own standards—he’d missed the cut in 10 of his last 12 events, and here he needed not just to make the weekend, but to finish near the top 10. The miracle happened, for a while. But when English reached 16 under at the turn, and threatened to actually win the tournament, nerves or bad play hit. Two straight bogeys brought him down to 14 under, and the tour’s “strokes back” tab on the little Lenovo computers dotting the media center told us that one more bogey would put him outside the playoffs. He birdied 15 for some breathing room, then made an immediate bogey to fall perilously close to the edge. English hated this, he told us later—hated the mindset of trying not to mess up, hated the anonymous pressure of the bubble, the “game within the game,” and never wanted to do it again.
By the time he was on the 18th hole, the air in Greensboro was so thick that it felt like a spontaneous rain might burst. A poor drive left English barely clear of the trees in the left rough, but his iron cleared the ridge—just cleared—and gave him two putts to make par and stay on the good side of the top 125. His lag from 60 feet was near perfect, and minutes later he was smiling that sheepish smile as he fielded questions by the scoring tent, and the children behind the ropes yelled for his hat, his glove, his signature. He was playoff bound, one of two players along with Nick Taylor to start the week outside the top 125 and able to move inside the number.
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Martin Piller, who was undoubtedly watching English’s putt on 18 with great interest, will not be heading to New Jersey for the Northern Trust next week. He started the week ranked 124th, but finished 126th after missing the cut in Greensboro by one measly stroke. Joining him in the “playing themselves out of contention” category is Tyrone Van Aswegen, who started the week 125th but missed the cut (also by one measly stroke) and fell to 127th.
Matt Jones, Retief Goosen, Bill Haas and Chris Stroud all fell out of the top 150—another numerical milestone in that being inside the 150 gets you conditional PGA Tour status in 2019 (Stroud will still have full status thanks to his 2017 Barracuda win). Rod Pampling fell out of the top 200, and D.A. Points played his way from 214th to 176th with his first top-10 of the season.
After Brandt Snedeker won the Wyndham with a spectacular 20 under, I checked the standings one last time on the black Lenovo. Everything looked right until I scrolled to the bottom of the FedEx Cup leader board. There, I saw Billy Hurley III. And I also saw the number beside the name: 201.
I have no idea how it happened. Someone made a timely birdie in the hour after he finished, Hurley’s position decreased incrementally, and it gave Smylie Kaufman the slightest edge at 200. It doesn’t matter if Kaufman chooses not to play the Web.Com Tour Championship, or seeks a medical exemption—Hurley is out. He’ll have to find his own way back to full status, and he’ll find no mercy in the numbers, emerging as they do from the dark arteries of the Wyndham’s secret soul. Greensboro is not the end, except when it is.