Insider: No one out of contention for PGA TOUR cards on the line at Dye's Valley

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Camilo Benedetti finds himself hovering near the bubble again this year at No. 35 on the money list.
September 25, 2013
By Jeff Shain, PGATOUR.COM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Ryan Spears tried the whole number-crunching approach. The enlightenment, though, left him far from the results he hoped to achieve.

“It didn’t work out,” admitted the Kansas pro, currently two spots shy of the cutoff for earning a PGA TOUR card out of the Tour Finals.

“I played OK enough at times, but at other times I hit a lot of suspect shots I normally wouldn’t hit. I just let the pressure get to me.”

Fortunately, the Finals allow players to set aside a tough week and refocus on next time out. But at some point, the schedule runs out of next times.

Welcome to the rejiggered Tour Championship, which in some circles feels a lot like old Tour Championship. Or the concept from which the 25 PGA TOUR cards to be given out Sunday were taken.

“Yeah, it’s pretty much the same feel as q-school,” said Andrew Putnam.

Hey, last-chance pressure is last-chance pressure. Those last remaining PGA TOUR cards will be awarded once the final putt drops at Dye’s Valley, and those left on the outside will be lamenting shots they’d like to have back.

“I’ll say I’d like to be further up [the money list], but I like where I’m at,” said Jim Herman, forced to sweat out the final putt of the final Sunday group a year ago before latching onto the last card available.

This week, the Cincinnati native checks in at No. 25 on the list – right in the middle of the pack that also includes the 25 graduates from the Tour’s Regular Season.

“I just want to play this week and take care of it myself,” Herman added. “I don’t want to have to rely on anybody else. … If I go play my game this week, I’ll be just fine.”

No one is out of contention at Dye's Valley – even those with no Finals earnings to this point can snatch a card with a top-4 performance.

“It’s a good thing for a lot of guys that haven’t made the cut,” said Camilo Benedetti, who finds himself hovering around the bubble for the second consecutive year. In previous years when the season was a single unit, “if you finish second, you’re not even close to getting your card.”

Nor are those with PGA TOUR cards already secured immune from pressure. With the exception of Michael Putnam, given a full exemption for leading the Tour’s Regular Season earnings, the Finals money list will determine entry priority for the season that begins next month.

Whoever tops the Finals money list will join Putnam with fully-exempt status, along with a guaranteed berth into THE PLAYERS Championship next year.

“It’s not so much getting into the top 50,” said No. 18 Bud Cauley, “but being high enough on the priority list to get into all the tournaments you want to play. That’s my biggest concern.”

With the 25 Regular Season graduates included in the Finals money list, the bubble can be something of a moving target. The man in line for the 25th card actually sits at No. 37, where Steve Wheatcroft holds a $1,583 advantage over Bhavik Patel.

“Somebody has to be there,” quipped Wheatcroft, a Jacksonville resident with plenty of rounds under his belt at Dye’s Valley.

Just above Wheatcroft on the Finals list are Alistair Presnell, Benedetti and Spencer Levin – who didn’t play a PGA TOUR event this year following thumb surgery and has a long medical exemption awaiting next season that will give him higher priority.

On one hand, Wheatcroft said, the bubble is a little more vulnerable under the Finals setup because of the possibility of big jumps from back in the pack. At the same time, it could be worse.

“People think being on the bubble is a trouble spot, but I could be well outside the bubble,” he said. “I could be 115th on the money list with one event to go and have to finish first or second. Here, I know a top-30 might do it.”

For better or worse, Wheatcroft has experience with bubble positioning. A third-place finish at the 2009 Tour Championship lifted him from 31st on the money list to No. 20. A few years earlier, he was far down the board halfway through q-school finals “and turned it around big-time to get through.”

“So experience plays a lot into something like this,” he said. “I just want to be among the top five or six guys with nine holes to go. I’m going to try to win this golf tournament. … If I start thinking about the number and the bubble and all that stuff, that’s where I’m going to stay all week.”

On the flip side is Spears, a Tour rookie who tied for 11th at the Finals opener, the Hotel Fitness Championship in Fort Wayne. It was at that point that he thought it might be wise to know what he’d need to do to keep position.

He missed the cut at the Chiquita Classic. Ditto for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship, dropping below the threshold for one of those PGA TOUR cards.

“In reality, I shouldn’t have put pressure on myself,” Spears said. “I learned that you’ve just got to go out and try to get yourself in contention on Sunday. That’s all you’ve got to look for.”

Dye’s Valley should provide a masterful test. The “other” course at TPC Sawgrass has ranked among the Tour’s four toughest courses in the past three years, when it served as host of the Winn-Dixie Jacksonville Open.

“It’s not a course where you can hit it anywhere,” Benedetti said. “The rough is very penal; the ball settles down quite a bit. Even if it doesn’t rain anymore [this week], it’s going to be wet, so that’s going to make it tougher.”

Wheatcroft suggested the rough might be a little shorter this year, giving players a chance to scramble their way back to par.

“You still have to know where to miss, where not to miss,” he said.

And that doesn't even begin to factor in last-chance pressure.