It is impossible to escape the irony. Disney World is, as the marketers tell us, “the happiest place on earth.”
The two golf courses – the Magnolia and the Palm – both have holes that are close enough to the theme park that one can hear the happiness coming from the rides and, often, the sound of the famous Disney train.
It’s the perfect place to escape the realities of life.
Except that the golf this week at the Mag and the Palm is about as real as it gets on the PGA Tour. For some players, Disney is a fun week, a place to come with your family and make one last check before the year ends while earning father/husband points along the way.
But for many this week there is nothing fun about being surrounded by so much happiness. The shrieks of joy coming from the park sound more taunting than anything else as players plow through four days of trying to save their job for another year.
“There are times,” Brian Claar said several years ago, “that you want to turn around when you hear the train or people shouting and say, ‘Will you please shut up!’ ”
Claar, now a rules official on the Champions Tour, is as calm and likeable a person as anyone who has ever played golf for a living. But when he came to Disney knowing he needed a top-20 finish to avoid returning to Qualifying School, it was impossible for him to keep that calm demeanor on Sunday afternoon.
Players always know what they need to do to reach a goal – Claar knew he was one birdie shy of where he needed to be as he plodded through the final holes. He had several chances but couldn’t convert. Just as he tapped in for par at 18, fighting tears by then, one could hear the train whistle from Disney loud and clear.
A couple of years after that, Frank Lickliter was in a similar position as Claar. Lickliter is NOT one of the more easy-going players on Tour and, even behind sunglasses, the tension on his face was evident the final few holes. A bogey on No. 17 ended his chances of keeping his card. Walking off the green Lickliter couldn’t keep his emotions in check and his wayward putter ended up in the pond near the green.
Jeff Sluman was playing with Lickliter that day. Sluman understood what Lickliter was going through and had tried very hard to stay out of his way all day. But when the putter found the pond, Sluman couldn’t resist.
“I gave you a 9.5 Frank,” he said as Lickliter walked onto the 18th tee after the putter had been retrieved.
If Lickliter found that funny he didn’t show it.
This week will be no different. While most of those who show up to watch will focus on Luke Donald’s attempt to run Webb Simpson down for the money title, there will be players dealing with a lot more pressure than Donald or Simpson. Sure, either one would love to finish on top of the money list and earn the five-year exemption that comes with it. If either wins the event, he will likely win the Player of the Year award.
But Donald and Simpson have won millions already this year and their spots on the Tour are secure for at least three years (Simpson) and two years (Donald) regardless of what happens this weekend.
The same cannot be said for many of those fighting for a spot in the top 125 or the top 150 on the money list. The Tour showed a little bit of humor when it paired Robert Gates and James Driscoll for the first two rounds. Gates and Driscoll are 124th and 125th on the money list and hanging on for dear life. Still, they’re in better shape than those outside the top 125 – although Bill Lunde at No. 126 is comfortable since he won last year and is exempt through 2012.
That can’t be said for Billy Horschel (No. 133) who last week at Sea Island appeared on the verge of at least a top-five finish and a big enough check to wrap up a spot in the top 125. But Horschel spun back late on Sunday and ended up improving only from 139th to 133rd. Now, he’s down to one last chance to avoid a trip to Q-School.
At least Horschel knows that his worst-case scenario is going to Q-School finals. Players who finish between 126th and 150th retain a partial exemption for next year, meaning that they will get into events when not enough fully exempt players show up to play. That usually means about a dozen starts unless you pick up some sponsor exemptions. And it means you automatically qualify for Q-School finals without having to go back to second stage.
Outside the top 150 is purgatory. If you haven’t won at least once on Tour you are no longer a member and have to go back to the second stage of Q-School and are guaranteed nothing for next year. As Disney begins, the player sitting just outside the top 150 at No. 151 is David Duval.
Duval won’t be in complete purgatory if he doesn’t make the cut, but he’ll be close. As a past Tour winner, he’ll still have membership status and will be able to get into tournaments on sponsor exemptions the way John Daly has in recent years. As a past British Open champion, Duval isn’t likely to be turned down by anyone he asks for an exemption.
But he isn’t thrilled about the idea of having to ask. “I don’t like to depend on the kindness of strangers in order to play golf,” he said with a smile.
Duval has already used up the one-year exemption he earned by being in the top 25 on the all-time money list and another exemption for being in the top 50. If Justin Leonard (currently No. 144) doesn’t jump into the top 125 this week, he will use his exemption next year as the 10th-leading money winner of all time. Duval no longer has that option. If he doesn’t at least make the top 150 he would face going back to second stage if he wants any status beyond past champion for next year. He hadn’t even planned to play at Disney but, after missing the cut last week, decided to play.
“I can’t really do myself much good unless I win there but the only way to win is to tee it up and compete,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing well enough to do that but I have to show up to have a chance.”
Duval hasn’t won on Tour since the 2001 British Open at Royal Lytham. But he still has hope and the belief that he can play well again. So, he will be out there grinding along with all the others who know this is the last chance they will get to be able to live “The Life” again next year.
Last year Robert Garrigus came to Disney sitting 122nd on the money list. He figured he had to at least finish in the top 20 to keep his card. He won. A year later, he’s here with a big smile on his face knowing he’s exempt through 2012 regardless of what happens this weekend.
“It feels so different,” he said. “All I’m thinking about right now is winning again. I like the golf courses and I feel relaxed and confident.”
He can afford to feel relaxed. The same isn’t true of Gates or Driscoll; Horschel or Duval and a host of others who will feel every bit of tension there is to feel when they tee it up on Thursday. Some will come through and leave Disney with a big smile the way Garrigus did last year.
Others will leave with an uncertain future and a lot to be concerned about. And you can bet they’ll want to tell that damn train to shut up on their way out of town.