LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The final PGA Tour event of the year is a lot like the final stage of Q-school, one last chance for so many players to earn their full cards for next year. The field at Disney looks like Q-school, too.
The only player from the top 50 in the world ranking is Robert Garrigus, who checks in at No. 42.
Only five players from the top 50 on the PGA Tour money list are at Disney — Garrigus (26), Ben Curtis (30), Jonas Blixt (35), Brendon de Jonge (39) and Charlie Wi (45). And six players have won on tour this year — two against weak fields in the Fall Series (Blixt and Tommy Gainey) and two against even weaker fields at opposite-field events (Scott Stallings and George McNeill). The other s are Curtis at the Texas Open and Ted Potter Jr. at the Greenbrier Classic.
For sheer entertainment, the best bet might be at one of Disney’s theme parks.
For the pressure of trying to perform with so much at stake, few regular PGA Tour events can match the tension of a golf tournament held on the expansive property of a resort that bills itself as the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
The Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic gets under way Thursday on the Palm and Magnolia courses at Disney, with the opening two rounds a pro-am format.
The top 125 on the money list keep full exempt status on the PGA Tour next year, with Billy Mayfair smack on the bubble at No. 125. He has a lead of $2,665 over Trevor Immelman, who already is safe next year from his five-year exemption for winning the 2008 Masters. Mayfair is only $3,504 clear of No. 127 Gary Christian, a 41-year-old rookie from England.
“It’s kind of nice to get to that stage now where you have to perform,” Christian said Wednesday. “This is it. You’ve got one more chance, and do good or you go home.”
Or in his case, go to the California desert at the end of the month for Q-school.
Christian felt remarkably relaxed. His wife and children were joining him Wednesday night and planned a week at the theme parks. Christian, who once held a job selling knives door-to-door, took a long time to reach the big leagues. He was on the Dakota Tour for six years, and the Nationwide Tour for seven years. He still appreciates the perks of the PGA Tour, from the courtesy cars to th e pristine condition of golf courses like Pebble Beach and Bethpage Black.
The highlight of the year was playing a practice round with Tom Watson at The Greenbrier, and playing the third round with Tiger Woods at The Barclays. The lowlight? He couldn’t think of anything, except for the usual aggravation that golf can cause on any level.
“I’m sure there is if you’ve been on tour for 10 years,” he said. “I can understand if you’ve been used to making seven figures every year and you’re on the outside look in, or on the inside hoping to hang in there. I’ve really got nothing to lose. If it all goes wrong, I assure you my wife still loves me and the kids still love me. And it just allow me to go and play with hopefully a lighter heart and go play great.
“I think it makes a man of you if I come through this and get into that top 125,” he said. “Then I think going forward, you use that as something very positive to fall on where you have one opportunity to perform and you did.”
These guys on the bubble have had more than one opportunity.
The players from No. 120 to No. 130 on the money list averaged 25 starts this year, and their own play put them in this predicament. Everyone through No. 122 — that would be 48-year-old Jeff Maggert — have enough of a cushion that they should be safe. That’s not the case for Kevin Chappell at No. 123 or Rod Pampling at No. 124.
And that’s certainly not the case for those beyond No. 125, such as Justin Leonard.
Leonard is one of the more under-appreciated players on tour. He got his card out of college without ever having to go to Q-school, and he has never come particularly close to losing his card. Despite being a peashooter in an era of bazookas, his 12 wins include the British Open and The Players Championship, and he lost two majors in playoffs.
But this has been a year to forget, and Leonard finds himself at No. 138 going into the last tournament.
Leonard had to be told that.
“I’ve made it a serious effort not to look,” he said. “I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what I need to do — just go out and play and do the best I can every day.”
Asked for his thoughts on the week, the Texan smiled.
“The kids are having a blast,” he said. “Usual Disney week, shuttling between the parks and the golf course.”
Leonard found himself consumed with the money list in the late spring, when he wasn’t getting much out of his game. He stopped worrying about results and tied for fifth at the Reno-Tahoe Open and tied for 19th at Greensboro. But when he returned six weeks later and opened with a 64 in Las Vegas, he again was consumed with trying to make the most out of a good start and stumbled.
“I got caught up in what I needed to do,” Leonard said.
He’s not that bad off. If he loses his card, Leonard is No. 9 in career earnings at just over $31 million, and he can use a pair of one-time exemptions for being in the top 25 and the top 50 on the money list. He plans on using only one of them, and that depends on this week.