Bubble pressure mounts in Regular Season finale
Cracking the top 75 can be critical to reaching the PGA TOUR -- even if it's next season
August 26, 2015
By Kevin Prise , PGATOUR.COM
- Brady Schnell is No. 76 on the Web.com Tour money list. The top 75 play in the Finals. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
NORTH PLAINS, Ore. -- Kelly Kraft knows what it’s like to feel the heat entering the final event of the Web.com Tour Regular Season. And he’s happy that he’s not in the same situation this year.
In 2014, Kraft entered the WinCo Foods Portland Open presented by Kraft Heinz at No. 72 on the money list. He knew that if he missed the cut, he would likely fall outside the top 75 – which would keep him from playing the Web.com Tour Finals and force him back to Q-School.
“Last year was definitely a little more nerve-wracking coming here,” said Kraft on Tuesday, taking a break from hitting balls at the Pumpkin Ridge GC practice range. “I was on the bubble and I knew I had to come in and make the cut and play decent.
“I remember being a little uneasy coming here. Once I made the cut, it was a little weight off my shoulders. I still had to play decent on the weekend, but somehow I got that last spot.”
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Kraft, the 2011 U.S. Amateur champion, finished T46 last year in Portland, closing with a final-round 73 but earning just enough money ($2,352) to secure the 75th spot on the money list by $1,321.
The Dallas-area resident has gone on to have his most successful professional season in 2015, currently No. 8 on the money list with his PGA TOUR card firmly in place for 2015-16.
It’s a fine line between success and failure in the world of professional golf and Kraft, a former Southern Methodist player, considers himself fortunate to have fallen on the right side of things last year in Portland.
The WinCo Foods Portland Open marks the most pivotal point yet in 2015 on the Web.com Tour. It’s the last chance for players to move inside the top 25 and secure PGA TOUR status for 2015-16, and it’s the last chance to enter the top 75 and secure a spot in the Finals – where another chance at a TOUR card awaits.
Each player in the 156-man field is in a different spot. Some, like Kraft, know that they’re safely inside the top 25. Others, like Rob Oppenheim, are inside the top 25 but know they most likely need a good week to stay there.
Oppenheim is in his sixth season on the Web.com Tour, trying to earn his TOUR card for the first time. This has been his most successful campaign yet, highlighted by a victory at the Air Capital Classic presented by Aetna, and he currently stands No. 24 on the money list.
The Massachusetts native made a 15-footer for birdie on No. 18 at last week’s News Sentinel Open presented by Pilot, allowing him to finish T13 and move up a spot on the money list. It’s a small cushion, but at least a slight one.
“It’s hard not to look at the list,” admitted Oppenheim on Tuesday. “You’ve got the caddie bibs everywhere with the numbers on them. I don’t have to win or do anything crazy, but I’ve got to play well.”
Last year, Oppenheim was minding the top-75 bubble; he entered Portland at No. 83 on the money list, needing a big week to qualify for the Finals. He was in contention entering the final round but shot 74, fading to a T21 finish and only moving to 79th on the money list. He was forced to earn back his status via Q-School, where a hole-in-one late in the final round helped him secure strong status for 2015.
Now, Q-School is the furthest thing from his mind. A TOUR card is the focus.
“I’ve never been in this position this late in the year,” Oppenheim said. “Thinking about the top 25 definitely beats thinking about the top 75.”It’s hard not to look at the list.”
One spot outside the top 25 is Kevin Tway, who held a top-10 spot on the money list for a large part of the beginning of the season, but has fallen back lately with only one top-25 finish in his last five starts.
Tway is No. 26 on the money list but has some ground to climb – interestingly enough, nearly $10,000 separates No. 25 Harold Varner III and No. 26 Tway, easily the biggest separation around the bubble.
The former Oklahoma State player, son of eight-time TOUR winner Bob Tway, is trying to treat this as a normal week. He knows that is easier said than done, however.
“Being No. 26, everyone thinks that it’s a lot more pressure,” Tway said. “I guess it is, a little bit, but you can’t really try to think about it. There’s already enough pressure, with how tough the golf course is.”
In a similar position as Tway – but trying to fight his way inside the top 75 – is Brady Schnell, a former Nebraska player who played consistently throughout the majority of the season but hasn’t made a cut since the Stonebrae Classic in mid-July.
Schnell looked at the money list earlier this week (he’s currently No. 76), and he figures he needs a finish somewhere around the top 15 in Portland to break inside the top 75.
Although Schnell has struggled with results lately, he feels that his game is in decent shape, saying he just needs to “go out there and free-wheel it” at Pumpkin Ridge.
“I haven’t played that poorly,” Schnell said. “I know where I stand; I’ve got to make a few bucks. I’ve felt good the last four weeks. What are the chances you miss five cuts in a row?”
For players well down the money list, it’s a play-great-or-go-home type of proposition. Tour rookie Kelvin Day stands No. 108 on the money list, with only one top-25 finish in his last nine starts. The England native knows that he will most likely move inside the top 25 and earn his PGA TOUR card with a win, and that’s the mentality he is trying to take – rather than calculating what he might need to crack the top 75.
“I’m pretty relaxed this week now,” Day said. “I’ve kind of put myself in a little bit of a tricky spot, being that I’m so far out of the top 75. I put so much pressure on myself earlier in the year, and that hasn’t worked, so I’m going to try to not care as much and see if that helps.”
Day says his putting has held him back this season, as well as various “rookie mistakes” such as excessive tinkering with equipment. After missing the cut last week in Knoxville, he spent a couple days at home in Charlotte. His parents had flown in from England, he didn’t touch a club for a couple days, and he hopes that the refreshed mentality will translate to a big week.
Day’s approach falls in line with Kraft’s sentiments when asked if he had any advice to offer players feeling the heat this week.
Last year at Pumpkin Ridge, Kraft would “run the (phone) battery down pretty good” after play, refreshing the projected money list. During the course of competition, though, Kraft recommends trying the block the situation out as much as possible.
“I think the best advice I could give, having done it … I would say you’ve just got to find a way to come out and play golf, still,” Kraft said. “Try not to look at the leaderboard too much, and just kind of play. I would look after my round and see how I was doing, see how some of the other guys were doing … but at the end of the day, you can’t really control what anybody else does.
“Just try to play golf and play the best you can. That’s all you can really do.”
Kraft will be a TOUR rookie next season, but if he had faltered last year in Portland, who knows? He could have been playing mini-tours right now.
The fine line in golf is always there.
“If I had fallen outside, I would’ve had only conditional status this year, which could’ve had a big difference in the way I played this year,” Kraft said. “Looking back on it, I mean, that 75th spot was huge. Being fully exempt this year, and then basically getting my card because of that.
“So it’s all a process. Everything kind of goes into the next thing. I’m glad I took care of business last year when I needed to do it.”
Many players in this week’s field will hope they can say the same on Sunday afternoon.