Fall Series continues to be wild ride


ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Fall hasn’t felt this final since the PGA Tour began dabbling in points and playoffs.

At the circuit’s penultimate stop, where cash is king and the only points worth noting were of the style variety, Ben Crane and Webb Simpson delivered on both fronts.

But then the circuit’s would-be rainmaker made headlines from the moment he decided to make his Fall Series cameo and turn this sleepy series into something serious. Whatever Simpson’s motivations for playing the McGladrey Classic, and next week’s Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, the message was clear.

On Friday then-money leader Luke Donald broke from his schedule and committed to play next week’s finale in search of money list glory, adding a measure of Twitter trash talking with a hash tag entry: “bring it on.”

Two days later Simpson answered, rallying from two strokes behind Michael Thompson with a closing 66 to tie Crane at 15 under par and force a record 18th playoff this year on Tour. He lost the overtime frame but may have won the ultimate payday, moving $363,000 clear of the Englishman in the cash dash.

Crane’s dash, however, was much more profound. Although he started the final round five strokes clear and clearly distracted by his wife’s impending Caesarean section back home in Texas on Monday and a nagging hip ailment that almost prompted him to withdraw from the event on Wednesday, he charged with a back-nine 30 that included a bogey at the 12th hole and six one-putts.

“I didn’t even consider looking at the leaderboard. I didn’t feel like I had that privilege,” said Crane, who closed with a round-of-the-day 63 to force the extra frames. “That’s as good as I can play. . . . It was one of those dream days for a golfer.”

But then Sunday was a dream day for many players as the season-ending money crunch produced victories large and small.

Thompson, who led Billy Horschel by a stroke through three rounds, moved a field goal clear of the pack through nine holes with birdies at Nos. 4-6, but faltered with bogeys at the 12th and 18th holes, his only miscues all weekend, to fall a stroke out of the playoff.

“I had a really good chance to win but that’s all part of the experience,” said Thompson, who despite his closing miscue climbed from 116th in earnings to 94th with his third-place showing to secure his 2012 Tour card. “You have to go through the disappointing times to get to the happy times. I’m playing next year (on Tour) and that’s a huge accomplishment.”

Even Scott McCarron’s tie for sixth place was a victory of sorts. The veteran, who was mired at 163rd in earnings, had requested a sponsor’s exemption into Disney but was rebuffed. His top-10 finish, his first this year, moved him to 145th and earned him a spot on the Disney tee sheet.

“I asked them (for an exemption),” McCarron smiled, “so I top 10’ed and got in on my own. So there.”

No one has covered as much professional ground as quickly as Bud Cauley. In eight Tour stops since bolting the University of Alabama Cauley has earned $735,150, enough to put him 112th on the money list.

On Sunday, the Jacksonville native admitted to “sneaking” onto the far side of the TPC Sawgrass practice tee, hallowed turf reserved for established Tour types. With his tie for 15th at Sea Island the 21-year-old may have officially snuck onto the Tour.

Although his push to post his third top 10 and earn a spot in the Disney field came up two strokes short – and the historical significance of Cauley becoming just the sixth player since 1980 to earn a Tour card straight out of college without going to Q-School apparently lost on Disney officials who passed on granting him a sponsor exemption – Cauley’s cash haul should be enough to secure him 2012 status.

“I see big changes in Bud since the U.S. Open,” said Cauley’s father, Bill. “The round with Vijay Singh (on Sunday at the Travelers Championship) was big. He’s always admired Vijay’s ballstriking and to beat (Singh) by three strokes made him believe he could play golf out here.”

Simpson has now made believers out of the entire golf world by surging past Donald, who led by $69,000 to begin the week and will need a runner-up showing at Disney to reclaim the top spot.

“Next week is going to be fun. It’s going to be a grind all week. The goal is to go out and win,” said Simpson, who missed a 3 ½ footer at the second extra hole for par to drop to 1-2 in playoffs this year on Tour. “I’ve got a nice lead now, but I do expect him to play well.”

Not that Donald could have expected Simpson to race past him. Not on this idyllic stretch of Georgia coast where the speed limit is 25 mph, unless otherwise posted, and guests are “asked” not to exceed 15 mph along the historic Avenue of the Oaks that winds its way to Sea Island’s Lodge.

To islanders accustomed to long, lazy afternoons the circuit’s breakneck tear through the Golden Isles must have felt like a New York minute. But for the often-sleepy Fall Series if feels like it’s finally up to speed.