Will there be a fairytale ending in finale at Disney?text sizeOctober 22, 2011
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The numbers on the PGA TOUR money list are always as important as those scribbled on the scorecards Sunday as the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic winds to a conclusion.
Unlike in past years, though, there will be as much attention at the top of the rankings where Webb Simpson and Luke Donald stand 1-2 as down around the 125 mark where those jobs for 2012 are on the line in the season-finale at Walt Disney World.
Justin Leonard, though, would like nothing better than to steal the spotlight on what is forecast to be a sunny fall afternoon. The 1997 British Open champ and Ryder Cup hero starts the final round looking to atone for a lost season in what is otherwise a stellar body of work locked in a tie for the lead with rookie Kevin Chappell.
"(I) would take his career right now if he'd give it to me," said Chappell, who appears to have his own heading in the right direction after twice finishing third or better this season, including at the U.S. Open.
Leonard, though, wants more. He hasn't won since 2008 -- although he shared the lead entering the final round of the 2009 CMN Hospitals Classic only to finish second. Sunday will be just the third time the Texan has been in that position in the last six years, and he's still looking for his 13th PGA TOUR victory.
The work he's done in the last three months on his practice routine and putting with Dr. Morris Pickens and Dave Stockon Jr., as well as the guidance of his long-time swing coach Randy Smith appears to be paying dividends, though. He'll know on Sunday and he's eager to see what happens.
"It's nice to be in this position," Leonard said. "Even if it's the last week of the year, it's still great progress and I think this will give me a big boost for the next couple of months when I'm at home taking some time off and ... getting ready for next year."
The last time the money title changed hands in the final week of the season was in 1996 as Tom Lehman overtook Phil Mickelson at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola. Simpson was 11 years old. Donald was still a year away from embarking from an All-America career at Northwestern.
The two came to Walt Disney World this week hoping to do what Lehman did that year in Atlanta. Donald wanted to overtake Simpson, who had leapfrogged the Englishman when he lost in a playoff at The McGladrey Classic last Sunday. Simpson simply wanted to tighten his own grip on the Arnold Palmer Trophy to cap off a career year.
Not to mention, both are looking to enhance their chances at winning a wide-open PGA TOUR Player of the Year as they tee off together for the fourth straight day on the Magnolia course at 11:15 a.m. ET.
"I think they're enjoying the challenge," said 52-year-old Tom Pernice, the Champions Tour veteran who played with the two on Saturday and is himself just three strokes off the lead.
Many times the stars don't align and such a battle never materializes. But three rounds into the CMN Hospitals Classic it has as Simpson starts the final 18 holes four strokes off the lead and Donald, who actually hopes to win the money title on both sides of the Atlantic, is five behind.
Granted, the pressure is on Donald, who has been a top-10 machine with 13 in 18 starts this year, including a win at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship. But this is more than a mano-y-mano battle because Donald has 13 players between him and the top spot -- and he needs to finish in a two-way tie for second or better to have a shot to unseat Simpson.
"I have to go super low tomoorrow and get a little bit of help from everyone else in front of me," Donald said.
The world No. 1 certainly didn't help himself with a water-logged double bogey Saturday on the par-5 14th hole, which is one of the easiest on the Magnolia Course. He was fourth at the time, only three strokes off the lead. That also ended a streak of 483 holes on the PGA TOUR without a three-putt for Donald who nonetheless was kept his sense of humor when reminded of the stretch.
"Do I win a prize?" he said with a smile. "Does that give me an extra vote?"
Simpson birdied that same 14th hole, one of four he made on the back nine Saturday after making the turn in 1 over. That 24-foot putt pulled him even with Donald and a 22-footer at the next gave him the edge. The former Wake Forest All-American will have one goal in mind on Sunday, and it won't be to outplay Donald.
"I'll be thinking about winning the golf tournament," said Simpson, who already has two victories in his last six starts.
For others on Sunday hope will spring eternal. Bio Kim, the youngest player on the PGA TOUR finds himself in the final group with Leonard and Chappell, trailing the leaders by one. The 21-year-old who had heart surgery during the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup came into the week ranked 168th on the money list and even with his lofty position on the leaderboard is not yet projected safely in the top 125.
"I have to shoot somewhere around 60s to have a chance," Kim said. "But I don't know, winning's -- you don't -- I can't think of the word. ... I haven't thought about it. So just got another 18 holes to go, so just gotta work hard right now."
So do players like Billy Mayfair, the veteran who was last year's q-school medalist and is currently tied for sixth. He's 127th on the money list but projected now at No. 109. Or Steven Bowditch, who came into the week 135th and now clocks in at No. 124 after moving to 10 under.
Sunday represents a last chance for a lot of players like them with a lot of reasons to want to play well. Some will. Some won't. But this is the place where dreams come true so someone will surely have a fairytale ending.