The Life of an Alternate Part 2

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Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on the life of an alternate on the PGA Tour. Read Part 1
 
NORTON, Mass. -- When Michael Clark missed the cut at the Deutsche Bank Championship, played Friday through Labor Day Monday, he did so at great personal expense.
 
He was the 14th alternate to make the field, and didnt find out there was a spot available for him until Thursday evening. He forked over $1,500 for a plane ticket and hotel and made the trip from Orlando to the Boston area, leaving behind his wife and two children.
 
With only two hours sleep in reserve, he set out blindly on the monstrous 7,415-yard, par-71 TPC of Boston course Friday morning. He grabbed a local volunteer as his caddie, shot 72, and then shot 74 Saturday to miss the cut by four.
 
In two weeks, Clark will be assured of a spot in the John Deere Classic. Its a tournament he won just three years ago.
 
He was in his sophomore season on the PGA Tour when he defeated Kirk Triplett in a playoff at the TPC at Deere Run in Silvis, Ill. That victory guaranteed him a two-year exemption on tour, and immeasurable security.
 
He finished 56th on the 2000 money list; dropped to 162nd in 01; and was 167th last year.
 
The descention meant he was no longer fully exempt on tour. He was relegated to the Past Champions category.
 
He was an alternate.
 
Each PGA Tour player earns a position on the priority ranking system that is used to select tournament fields.
 
The Past Champions category is position No. 30.
 
That means those who have won tour events over the last two seasons have priority over you. And so do those who finished in the top 125 on the money list the season before. And Q-School qualifiers. And Nationwide Tour graduates. And those with major and minor medical extensions.
 
And if a regular tour field ' which is usally around 156 players in a given week ' can not be finalized with all those players ' and with whomever the tournament might offer invitations ' then officials dig further: To those who finished between 126 and 150 on the previous years money list, and to past winners beyond the top 150.
 
When youre in these latter categories, there are no guarantees. Youre often reduced to the role of an alternate. You have to wait and see. Wait and see if others dont want to play, or cant. Wait and see if somehow, some way you can try and earn a check ' and possibly gain or regain that security blanket.
 
Its very hard to schedule; it makes it hard on the family, Clark said. Some guys have tons of money; we watch our money a little bit. To book four tickets at the last minute is very expensive.
 
So we havent traveled as much as a family together, which makes it tough.
 
There is structure and order within this alternate world. The tour reshuffles a player's priority periodically over of the course of a season.
 
Even those who make it through the Qualifying Tournament and the developmental tour to get their PGA Tour card go through the reshuffling process. Over a period of time you can be near the top of the list; another near the bottom.
 
It doesnt matter what youve done throughout your career. Youre now a number.
 
Just ask David Frost.
 
Frost is a 10-time tour winner. He finished inside the top 100 on the money list from 1985-97. But last year he fell to 126th in earnings, missing the magical number by less than $6,000.
 
You have no position at all. Youre no consideration because you just missed it, Frost said of his status. I thought Id get more invites, because of my time Ive spent out here, tournaments Ive won. But its just amazing how little consideration I actually got.
 
The 43-year-old South African was first alternate at the Deutsche Bank. He easily got in, and managed to collect $25,400 with his tie for 32nd; thus moving him to 139th on this years money list.
 
Frost said he banks on playing roughly 20 tournaments a year without full exempt status. This was his 19th start of the season, and the ninth cut he has made.
 
Theres certainly tournaments that you will definitely get in, because of the whole structure, Frost said. The 126-to-150 (from the previous seasons money list) have their events that they will get into based on the history of the tournament. This one, no one knew, because we havent played here before.
 
Kent Jones, who was 131st in earnings last year, was the fourth alternate to get the call this week. This is his fifth year on tour, and he has never finished inside the top 125.
 
Jones has twice played the waiting game onsite at an event. He tried to get into the Byron Nelson Classic and the Western Open, but was unsuccessful in both attempts.
 
The 36-year-old New Mexican was at home Wednesday morning when the tour phoned to tell him he was eligible to compete.
 
This year the schedule is a little different, he said. Its been a strange year. Some of the tournaments early I thought I would get in and I didnt. A couple of tournaments late, like (The International) and here, I thought I wouldnt have a chance to get in, and Ive gotten in.
 
Jones tied for 13th to move to 138th on the money list.
 
The next month is crucial for those trying to crack the top 125. Many of the games higher-ranked players will be taking time off until the WGC-American Express Championship in early October.
 
Jones said he anticipates playing the next five weeks, and will hope for spots in the Las Vegas Invitational and the Chrysler Classic of Greensboro.
 
Its coming down to the last few events of the year, and these few I know Im going to get in, he said.
 
The only full-field events after Greensboro are the Funai Classic at Walt Disney World and the Chrysler Championship.
 
The last two, I dont think I have a chance, he said.
 
Outside of the John Deere, Clark isnt really sure when and where he will play.
 
After tapping in for bogey on his 36th and final hole at the Deutsche Bank, Clark disappointingly signed his scorecard. But instead of sulking off into the sunset ' and with every reason to do so ' he pulled a red Sharpie from his bag and graciously penned his name to some hats, flags and programs.
 
After putting the marker back in the bag, he thanked his caddie ' the same volunteer ' for the two days' work. He'll have to pay him out of his own pocket seeing as you don't make a dime when you miss the cut.
 
From there it was off to the locker room to call his wife to see whether or not he should head home or stay in the Boston area and take his scheduled flight north of the border.
 
Clark is the third alternate for this weeks Bell Canadian Open; he knows hell most likely get into the field.
 
But, again, nothing is guaranteed.
 
Worst case scenario, fly up Tuesday mid-day some time. I dont know. Well have to wait and see, he said.
 
Waiting and seeing is the life of the unenviable alternate.
 
Read The Life of an Alternate, Part 1