PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – As Rob Oppenheim stood behind the scoring area at TPC Sawgrass, he looked up wistfully at the pine trees towering above his head.
His work was done. An entire week – heck, an entire Web.com Tour season spent on the bubble had come to a close, and his fate was now in the hands of others.
“The golfing gods,” he said with a shake of his head. “They owe me.”
Two hours later, by the thinnest of margins, they paid him back and made Oppenheim the key figure in the season’s final event.
The Web.com Tour Championship is rarely about who wins or who loses the tournament; it’s about who survives the four-week finals gauntlet and advances to the PGA Tour. Twenty-five cards have been up for grabs over the last month, and Oppenheim claimed the final golden ticket thanks to an unexpected source – Lucas Glover.
Oppenheim and Glover are both 35, having been born only two months apart. But that’s where the comparisons stop. Glover is an accomplished PGA Tour winner, the lone major champion in this week’s field and a player who had already clinched his return to the big leagues.
Oppenheim, meanwhile, has never held a PGA Tour card. He needed a late hole-in-one at Web.com Tour Q-School last year to simply earn a full Web.com card, and he was a hard-luck loser when the regular season came to a close.
Buoyed by his win at the Air Capital Classic in June, Oppenheim entered the final regular-season event on the cusp of earning his card. But he missed the cut in Portland by a shot and finished 26th on the money list when the top 25 players earned a promotion.
His $160,159 in earnings left him $943 short of his goal.
Oppenheim took the close call in stride, but after his round Sunday at TPC Sawgrass it appeared he had again come up agonizingly short. He closed 67-67 over the weekend, but was dealt a cruel blow when his 9-iron approach on No. 15 hit the hole on the fly.
Instead of settling at the bottom of the cup, it caromed off the flagstick and rolled 20 feet away. A potential eagle – or at least an easy birdie – turned into a disappointing par.
“It’s a tough two shots,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s as close as anyone has come, I’m sure everyone’s got their stories. But it’s close.”
When Oppenheim finished his round, he was projected at No. 28 in the standings. But the afternoon pressures took effect on the leaders, and he continued to linger near the bubble. When Glover closed with bogeys on Nos. 17 and 18, it moved Oppenheim from a five-way tie for 13th into a six-way tie for 12th.
That, it turns out, was all the difference. Already 30 minutes down the road, Oppenheim jumped from No. 27 to the coveted No. 25 spot. His final margin over Eric Axley, who himself finished No. 25 at last year’s Finals, was $101.
Believing that his chances were gone, Oppenheim left after his round. He and his pregnant wife, Lacey, were at a gas station with their young daughter when they realized they needed to turn the car around.
“They must have shown on the coverage that I got in, because the phone went berserk,” he said. “I just knew. My wife, we gave each other a nice hug.”
Oppenheim was the most improbable beneficiary Sunday, but he was hardly alone. Five players played their way inside the bubble this week, including former PGA Tour winner Robert Garrigus.
“It was very stressful. I told [playing partner] Thomas Aiken, that this is like the first hole of the Masters for four days,” Garrigus said. “Every shot, every hole. It’s just nerve-wracking. I’m glad I got through it.”
Aiken entered this week without a postseason cent to his name, having missed the cut at each of the first three Finals events. But the South African closed with a 65 to tie for fifth, and after a European Tour career that has included three wins he now plans to shift his focus.
“Since I was a kid, I played junior golf over here and my dream was always to play on the PGA Tour,” Aiken said. “I happened to go the European route first, and it’s been more and more difficult to transition over here.”
Not every bubble story, though, can have a happy ending. Billy Hurley III entered this week at No. 26 in earnings, and he seemed to hover around that projected standing all week.
Hurley’s prediction on Wednesday – “You can’t finish 40th here and expect to earn your card” – proved ominously accurate. At 2 under, he tied for 43rd and finished 27th in earnings, $394 short of a return to the PGA Tour.
Hurley created a roar when his 45-foot birdie putt on the final green dropped, but his ultimate undoing came two holes earlier when he pulled a wedge into the water on the par-5 16th, leading to a costly bogey.
“I didn’t play particularly well today,” he said. “Missed some chances throughout the whole day. But I played my best to do what I could, and it was a tremendous putt on the last to even give myself a chance.”
Luke Guthrie made a late charge at the Wyndham Championship to secure conditional PGA Tour status for next year, and he had again played his way inside the number on the back nine Sunday. But Guthrie failed to birdie any of his last eight holes, left to especially rue a 7-foot miss for birdie on No. 18. He finished 38th.
“That’s the closest I hit it all day,” he said. “I just couldn’t get the ball close enough. You can’t expect to make 30-footers, and I had those all day.”
But the man of the hour, the poster child for bubble redemption was Oppenheim, the final beneficiary of this month-long marathon.
After racing back to TPC Sawgrass to accept his newly minted card, and with a glass of celebratory champagne still in his hand, the Tour’s newest rookie assessed his revised tab with the golfing gods.
“They got me back, and then some,” he said with a smile. “We’re all square.”