Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 17, 2010

Whoever Thought Finishing 125th Could Feel So Good?

By late October, the professional golf season is over for all but the most diehard fans. The four majors have long since been decided. The PGA Tour’s four-tournament playoff series for the FedEx Cup has been completed. This year’s international exhibition, the Ryder Cup, has come to a soggy but exciting conclusion. The game’s superstars skip most if not all of the autumn tournaments. But for a handful of players the Tour’s Fall Series, the final five tournaments on the annual schedule are quite literally a matter of professional life or death. Those are the players sitting just above or below the 125th spot on the money list. For at season’s end only the top 125 in earnings are fully exempt for the succeeding year.

Finish in the top 125, and a touring pro can look forward to playing for multi-million dollar prizes week in and week out. He can look forward to courtesy cars at every stop, and unlimited new Titleists on every practice range. Finish 126th on the money list, and all of that goes away. A veteran who slips outside the magic number may be able to rely on years of building relationships with tournament sponsors to wrangle a number of sponsor’s exemptions into several tournaments. But the only way to be certain of playing a full schedule is to return to the inferno of qualifying school. A trip back to Q-School is every pro’s nightmare. The Q-School final stage, played the first week in December (and at least those pros who finish just outside of #125 are exempt right into the finals) is a six-round tournament with a field of 150 or so. Out of that large field only the top 25 receive Tour cards for the following season. The pressure of Q-School is immense, and not something that any pro wants to revisit.

So for those golfers between about 115th and 135th on the money list the Fall Series is vitally important. Going into this week’s Open in California, Australian Aron Price was the lucky player ranked 125th, with $693,502 in earnings. He moved into that spot just last week, when he shot 10-under par to finish in a tie for 9th place at the McGladrey Classic. The $108,000 Price won for that finish was enough to vault him ten spots up the money list and into the coveted top 125. In the same tournament Joe Durant finished tied for 6th, winning $134,000. That was enough to move Durant from 131st all the way up to 115th.

Out in California this weekend, the television cameras were on Rocco Mediate, who incredibly holed out from the fairway for eagle on all four days of the tournament. Mediate’s one-stroke victory over Bo Van Pelt and Alex Prugh was the 7th PGA Tour victory for the popular journeyman, and his first in more than eight years.

But back in the pack stomachs continued to churn and nerves continued to jangle. The two golfers who made big moves last week went in opposite directions. Joe Durant had another decent week, finishing tied for 24th, which was good enough to bump him up one more position on the money list. With only two weeks left, Durant can breathe a bit easier. The likelihood of twelve golfers passing him over the next fortnight is remote. But Aron Price is breathing anything but easy. He just made the cut at this week’s event, and with his 63rd place finish he’s now on the outside looking in, at 126th. The new lucky dog is Woody Austin, though Austin probably isn’t feeling very lucky. He’s now in 125th by virtue of actually slipping a spot this week.

As Durant and Price have proven, the Tour’s large purses mean that one decent finish can make a huge difference in a player’s standing on the money list. The field at next week’s tournament in Las Vegas will compete for $4.3 million. The following week at the last official event of the year at Walt Disney World, they will tee it up in pursuit of a share of $4.7 million. Right now $40,000 separates 115th place from 125th, and there’s another $94,000 between 125th and 135th. Given the amount of money still on the table, there’s likely to be considerable movement over these final two weeks.

They are not really household names, the twenty-one golfers sitting between 115th and 135th place with two weeks to go. And their earnings this season are but a shadow of the $4.9 million that Matt Kuchar has won to lead the money list. But they are accomplished pros, with 32 career victories, led by Billy Mayfair’s five. Over eight final rounds of the 2010 season, they will all be grinding, trying their hardest to move up the tournament’s leader board, and in doing so move up the money list. In the end, eleven will make it, and one of this group will wind up 126th. Whoever it is will have plenty to reflect upon while he prepares for the six rounds of the Q-School final. Last year the difference between 125th and 126th place was $2,997. That’s far less than the difference between the checks for finishing one position higher or lower in a single tournament. Whoever thinks one missed four-foot putt over the course of a season doesn’t matter should talk to these guys.

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