LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – That cool wind that swept across Walt Disney World on Wednesday had nothing to do with the nor’easter roaring its way up the coast, although the chill certainly added to the atmosphere on the eve of the year’s final event.
The 400-pound elephant perched in the middle of the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic standing room was about shrinking margins and rapidly dwindling playing opportunities.
Normally players arrive at Disney for the season finale with options no matter how poorly they’ve played over the previous 10 months. Finishing inside the top 125 in earnings is good for a bona fide Tour card, but the historical alternative was finishing somewhere between 126th and 150th in winnings for conditional status.
Great things have come from limited status which made Disney something of a soft deadline in the past, but in 2013 that safety net is much smaller. The condensed reality of next year’s transition to a split-calendar schedule means that there is no more “plan B.”
“It’s not like 125 (in earnings) is great and 126 is pretty good,” David Mathis said. “One (hundred) and twenty-five is awesome and 126 to 150 is terrible. That’s how the players view it because you can’t just pick and choose where you’re going to play from that category.”
Next year’s number’s crunch is the byproduct of the loss of the four Fall Series events and the Mayakoba Golf Classic, which will all become part of the 2013-14 season. It’s a net loss of over 650 playing opportunities or, as one Tour official figured, five fewer starts for all but the top players in 2013.
It’s a reality that leaves those players who finish between 126th and 150th, which has been good for 15 to 20 starts in the past, adrift in a barren wasteland. Estimates vary, but many observers believe players with conditional status in 2013 will probably be limited to 10 or fewer starts.
“You’re begging for starts (with conditional status),” Steve Flesch said on Wednesday at Disney. “If you’re counting on (finishing) 126 to 150 you’re in trouble, big trouble. If you’re thinking of (No.) 140 getting in events you’re dreaming.”
All of which makes this week’s finale, which could be the Tour’s last trip to Disney unless officials find a replacement sponsor for the Children’s Miracle Network, an exercise in crisis management.
For the first time in more than a decade, No. 125 in earnings is every bit a hard salary cap and nobody knows that better than Gary Christian. “It’s all gloom and doom out there,” the Englishman said. He was talking about Tour player reaction to Tuesday’s presidential election, but it was an apropos take on the mood across Disney’s Palm and Magnolia courses on the eve of the 2012 finale.
“A lot of people will have a couple of grey hairs, maybe a few ulcers this week,” said Christian, who at 127th in earnings likely needs a top-20 finish to crack the top 125. “Hopefully I’m not one of them.”
Although the final stage of Q-School remains for those who fall short this week, a sense of urgency hung over the Magic Kingdom on Wednesday.
Last year it was James Driscoll who arrived at Disney perched on the abyss at No. 125 in earnings and he spent more time in the clubhouse bathroom to . . . well, clear his head, to put it delicately, then he did on the practice tee prior to his final round before closing with 68 to retain his Tour card.
“I think I had food poisoning,” he smiled on Tuesday at Disney when asked about his final round in 2011. He has the luxury of smiling this year. At 120th in earnings his $687,000 is likely enough to maintain his status.
Billy Mayfair wasn’t so cheerful. At 125th in earnings the veteran is this week’s bubble boy, with Rod Pampling at 124th and Kevin Chappell at 123rd.
Just $32,500 separates No. 130 D.J. Trahan, who clung to the final Tour card last year (No. 125) following his tie for 46th at Disney, and Mayfair. Or, to put that number in context, it is the difference between a tie for 25th (Trahan) and a missed cut (Mayfair).
Estimates vary, but according to Scott Hamilton, a Georgia-based teaching professional who works with numerous Tour players, it will take about $632,000 to finish inside the top 125 based on this week’s purse and how the “magic number” has tracked over the last few weeks.
“I kept hearing $700,000, $700-something (to finish inside the top 125), but I looked at it before the Frys.com Open and how it changed every week,” Hamilton said. “It seems the number has been moving between $10,000 to $15,000 depending on the purse.”
If that math holds, No. 123 (Kevin Chappell) through Mayfair are all in jeopardy of sliding into the money list no-man’s land and booking a trip to PGA West for this month’s Q-School. That next year’s condensed schedule will only squeeze those margins and add pressure to an already anxiety-filled environment.
For this week’s bubble players, Disney is a sports psychologist’s worst nightmare, a Draconian existence where the result and the process are virtually inseparable and an entire body of work is bottlenecked into a single start. A place where the only comfort is in the clichés.
“It's all clichés now,” Christian said. “One shot at a time. It’s a process. You know, I could probably write a golf psychology book that encompasses everything you need to know.”
Perhaps, but then all one really needs to know is that one of pro golf’s toughest week’s is suddenly a little more challenging.