Insider: Cox Classic offers last chance to qualify for Tour Finals

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Three players could knock Michael Putnam out of the No. 1 spot he's held since May.
August 21, 2013
By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM

In an ideal world, Patrick Cantlay wouldn’t touch a golf club this week.

Well, maybe a little putting back home in California, just to ward off boredom while his back has the chance to heal. Perhaps even some light chipping. Just not the big sticks – and certainly not in competition.

But it’s the final week of the Tour’s Regular Season, sending Cantlay to Nebraska in hope of keeping his suddenly tenuous grip on a PGA TOUR card. He enters the Cox Classic Presented by Lexus of Omaha at No. 25 on the money list – the man squarely on the bubble.

That stress fracture on his vertebrae will have to wait.

“It doesn’t feel good,” said Cantlay, who missed last week’s cut in Knoxville after ending an 11-week absence. “It hurts on almost every big swing, but it’s definitely manageable.”

Of all the lines of separation that lock in after the final putt drops at Champions Run, the one after No. 25 might be the harshest. The 25th man attains his goal of a PGA TOUR promotion. For No. 26, the slate is wiped clean and the second chance lasts just four events.

And that’s right where Cantlay teeters. Though he won the Colombia Championship in the season’s second week, the summer has yielded a slow slide down the chart with each week of inactivity.

“It just came down to [having] a couple of weeks left,” Cantlay said. “I felt like if I was able to swing, I deserve to give myself an opportunity, just to try and accomplish what my goal was for this year.”

Cantlay figured to be one of the Tour’s headliners this year. He spent nearly a year atop the world amateur rankings, following a summer in which he was low amateur at the 2011 U.S. Open, runner-up at the U.S. Amateur and fired a 60 at Travelers.

Everything seemed on track after winning in Colombia, but Cantlay’s back flared up while playing the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. For the medically conversant, he has a hairline fracture in the L5 pars on the spine’s left side.

“They said it could heal up in six weeks,” Cantlay said, “but it could take a year. There’s no definite time frame.”

Suffice it to say six weeks wasn’t the answer. Even with physical therapy five days a week to strengthen the area around the fracture, it won’t speed up a healing bone. 

Seeing his name slide to No. 23, Cantlay decided to return to action. He committed to the News Sentinel Open and started practicing again, though he didn’t play his first holes until a practice round in Knoxville.

Cantlay and No. 26 Wes Roach are separated by $2,807, with Whee Kim another $280 behind. No matter how it shakes out, Cantlay’s path doesn’t end – the Finals still determine priority status for all but No. 1 on the money list.

“I haven’t planned past this week,” Cantlay said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time.”

BATTLE FOR NO. 1: Give Ben Martin credit. Even after his Mylan Classic victory closed the money gap to less than $35,000 behind No. 1 Michael Putnam, he didn’t deviate from his plan to take two weeks off before the regular season finale.

The margin now stands at $37,735, keeping Martin within striking distance of snatching the crown on the final day.

“It’ll be fun to go to Omaha with a chance to finish No. 1,” the South Carolina native said after his five-shot romp three weeks ago.

The money champion, remember, is fully-exempt for next season and can pretty much set his own schedule. He’s also guaranteed a spot in THE PLAYERS Championship.

“That’s the thing,” said Putnam, who tied for 30th in Knoxville after missing the Mylan Classic cut. “No. 2 can’t guarantee anything.”

Martin can dethrone Putnam with a victory, or a runner-up finish as long as Putnam isn’t alone in third. Ties for second get a little more complicated. No matter what, though, Martin can’t finish lower than solo fourth, or a four-way tie for third.

No. 3 Chesson Hadley and No. 4 Edward Loar also can leap to the top with a victory, though Putnam can squelch their efforts by finishing among the top dozen.

75 OR BUST: Zack Sucher needed just three starts this year to attain Special Temporary membership for the rest of 2013. Poor timing, though, leave him needing a little nudge to get a spot in the Tour Finals.

How little? Right now, Sucher sits at No. 76 – separated from a Finals berth by a mere $126.

“I only have one more chance,” said Sucher, who twice has failed to carry any momentum from a top-10 finish through to the next week. On both occasions, he missed the cut.

After a closing 65 gave Sucher a share of runner-up honors at the South Georgia Classic, he shot 74-71 up the highway in Athens and wound up two shots beneath the cut line. The Alabama pro didn’t get into another Tour event until this month, when four birdies in his last six holes at the Mylan Classic lifted him to a tie for 10th.

Alas, Sucher posted 72-70 a week later in Springfield and missed by three. In both cases, even making the cut and finishing last would have been worth at least $1,550.

Michael Connell is the man at No. 75, with earnings of $64,184. After Sucher comes Morgan Hoffmann, though he’s not a factor after qualifying for the FedExCup Playoffs. Next comes Paul Claxton, the Tour’s all-time leader in starts (412) who stands $1,844 off the pace.

Also of note is No. 84 Blayne Barber, who made headlines last October when he turned himself in to PGA TOUR officials for a misapplied penalty that ended his run through Q-School.

The Auburn alum tied for second as a Monday qualifier in Knoxville, just two weeks after he took another DQ at the Mylan Classic for a scorecard oversight. He trails Connell by $10,078 for the last Finals berth.

TRIPLE DIGITS: Keep an eye, too, on the jockeying around No. 100. That’s the cutoff for guaranteed Tour status next year.

Less than $7,700 separate No. 97 Brad Elder from No. 103 James White, whose entire $36,300 total stems from last week’s share of runner-up in Knoxville. Even a solid top-5 finish could lift No. 175 John Chin, who enters the week $28,373 behind No. 100 Richard Scott, to the proper side of that cut line.