As any game show enthusiast can attest, sometimes lifelines can come in handy. At its highest level, the game of golf is no exception.
The upper tier of the PGA Tour career money list is filled with familiar names - Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson. It also includes a few names that might be unexpected - Bob Estes and Jeff Sluman, for instance. Regardless of name recognition, membership among the top 50 on this list carries with it a rather valuable benefit.
Each of the top 50 players on the Tour's career earnings list are rewarded with a season-long, 'one-time only' exemption if not otherwise eligible for the following year on Tour. The top 25 on the list also receive a second exemption of the same nature. Players typically preserve these benefits like a fine wine, planning to use them only as a last resort while in the twilight of their careers. As the 2012 season concludes though, several notable players may need to use one of these lifelines to ensure full-time playing status for next year.
Stuart Appleby found himself in just such a position following the 2009 season. After finishing 137th on the year-end money list, the Aussie used his special exemption to retain playing privileges for 2010. That July, Appleby famously shot a final-round 59 to win The Greenbrier Classic, extending his fully-exempt status through 2012 in the process.
Entering this week's CMN Hospitals Classic, though, the 41-year-old finds himself in familiar territory, currently 162nd on the money list and still searching for his first top-10 finish since the 2011 Honda Classic. At 19th on the Tour's career earnings list, he is one of a select few that are equipped with two exemptions based on their cumulative career achievements. Using his second lifeline next year, though, would leave Appleby to play the 2013 season without the benefit of a safety net.
Justin Leonard's special exemption was nearly called upon a year ago, as he entered the season's final event 144th on the 2011 money list. A runner-up finish at Disney, however, propelled him to 91st in the final standings and allowed the 1997 British Open champion to save his exemption for future use. Twelve months later, the 40-year-old Leonard tees it up this week at 138th on the money list, his status for next year again in question. More than $91,000 shy of the coveted 125th spot in the standings, it appears that Leonard - who is ninth on the career money list - will soon need to use the first of two exemptions at his disposal to remain on Tour full-time.
While somewhat under the radar, Jerry Kelly has had a remarkably consistent career on the PGA Tour. For 11 straight seasons, the 46-year-old has amassed more than $1 million in earnings, and he has been inside the top 80 on the year-end money list every year since 1999. Both streaks appear in jeopardy, though, as Kelly's best finish of the year is a T-12 at the Greenbrier Classic and he begins the season's final week 137th on the money list. A 3-time winner on Tour, Kelly is currently 25th in career earnings and still has a special exemption at his disposal.
Barring an eleventh-hour rally on the Magnolia Course this weekend - or an appearance at the final edition of Q-School next month - all three players will need to part with their valuable lifelines in order to play full-time on the PGA Tour in 2013.
If anyone understands the value of these exemptions, it is Billy Mayfair. After a sub-par 2004 campaign, Mayfair was forced to use his standing at No. 38 on the career money list to ensure playing privileges for the following season. Nearly eight years later, he now finds himself 125th on the 2012 money list, teetering precariously between full-time status and a 2013 season filled with uncertainty. With pressure mounting as Mayfair plays his final rounds of 2012, a lifeline would certainly come in handy right about now.