Plenty of pressure looms in Tour finale

Derek Fathauer leads the Tour Championship by 1 shot. (Photo by Enrique Berardi/PGA TOUR)


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It’s rare to find a sporting event that’s equally captivating at both ends of the leaderboard, yet that’s exactly what Sunday at TPC Sawgrass promises. The winner gets a trophy, but so do the losers, metaphorically speaking. Forty-nine of them, to be exact.

Sunday will be all about establishing position on the priority list for the 2014-15 PGA Tour season. Who’s in? Who’s out? Where does everyone fall on the list? If you can keep up with that, then you deserve a cookie. Everyone else … sit back, relax and enjoy the drama as it unfolds.

While technically 50 cards are up for grabs, 25 of them are already spoken for. The top 25 regular-season money earners from the Tour are all heading to the PGA Tour next season, with their priority ranking determined by their finish here on Sunday.

Numbers game: How the priority rankings work

The remaining 25 cards will go to the top earners from the month-long Finals series, where Bud Cauley, Adam Hadwin and Justin Thomas won the first three events.

“It’s tough. It’s what it is, you’ve got to grind it out, it’s the last tournament of the year, a lot of things can happen and we’re doing the best we can,” Chad Collins machine-gunned a volley of clichéed yet accurate observations. Collins, after an even-par 70 on Day 3, sits 52nd in the projected priority rankings, two spots out of a PGA Tour card.

Never mind the lack of names you’re used to pulling for (or against) in final rounds. Sunday is arguably the most pressure-packed day in golf.

When Rory or Phil or Tiger have a less-than-stellar final round, they are consoled with a private jet ride home. If Tag Ridings (No. 51) or Vaughn Taylor (No. 53) or Roberto Castro (No. 50) don’t bring their best stuff on Sunday, it means another year of not reaching their ultimate goal. Another year of – another cliché alert – “every shot counts.”

Those guys that go by one name, they get as many shots as they want. These guys tomorrow are playing for their livelihood.

“It turns your hair gray, you lose some hair,” said Ridings, who is just one spot out of the final Tour card through 54 holes.

At the other end of the spectrum – you know, at the top of the leaderboard, where you’re used to looking – we have players playing for more than a Tour card. Derek Fathauer, who leads by one shot through 54 holes, and some others are playing for a real chance to excel on the PGA Tour next year.

The higher you can climb on the priority list, the more events you can ultimately play. Thanks to Carlos Ortiz’s missed cut, Hadwin has a chance to finish first in the priority rankings, guaranteeing a fully exempt Tour card next season and a spot in the 2015 Players Championship.

“I really haven’t worried about it, these playoffs. I’ve just tried to go out and have some fun and tried to enjoy myself and just pick targets and fire at pins when I feel the need to,” said Hadwin, who’s four off the lead after a 3-under 67 and projected to finish No. 1 in the priority rankings.

Whether you’re watching the top or the bottom of the leaderboard Sunday, at the end of the day, there will be 50 men leaving TPC Sawgrass with their 2014-15 PGA Tour cards, a harsh reality that some will take better than others.

“Hopefully I can play well tomorrow and slip in there in [the] top 50 and get my card back, but if not, I’m looking forward to deer season the rest of the year and hanging the clubs up until January and then start back up again,” said Collins.

Let’s hope there are some other hunters playing Sunday, or at least some guys with hobbies besides golf. Because there’s a good chance one shot will be the difference between someone realizing their dream, and someone taking solace in “there’s always next year.”