LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – On a sun-splashed afternoon adjacent a kingdom where time stands still, math gave way to money, the game’s original, and most reliable, litmus test.
As Mickey’s little hand inched its way home on Sunday, a cast of characters that even the imaginative Walt Disney could appreciate surfaced – complete with a genuine reclamation project hoisting the hardware, a rookie stick-figure lifting a $1 million lottery ticket and all manner of money list victories and defeats to fill the moments in between.
Briny Baird was the first to emerge from the fray, a perennial bubble boy who started the week 126th in earnings, left his 10 footer for birdie at the last on the low side of the hole and signed for his closing 68 at 12:45 p.m.
“I’m going to get in my car and listen to the Dolphins game,” said Baird as he eased his grey GMC Yukon out of Disney’s parking lot. At the time he was 125th in projected earnings – which, for a Tour pro, is as useless and gut-wrenching a statistic as exists – Miami was trailing Tennessee by a field goal and overnight leader Roland Thatcher was a shot clear of Robert Garrigus.
Before Baird made it to the Florida Turnpike for the four-hour journey back to Jupiter, Fla., his nomadic existence on the top 125 “bubble” had already started as he toggled between Nos. 125 and 127 for much of the afternoon.
By the time Joe Durant fist pumped his 9-foot par putt at the last at 2:42 p.m. he’d displaced Baird, temporarily, on the hot seat. In a moment of money list levity a reporter tried to cheer Durant up by telling him he was still in the race to win the ballstriking and total driving categories.
“I’d love to win putting just one year,” he smiled. Durant’s consolation prize is a 2011 Tour card, marking the first year since 2006 he’s finished inside the top 125.
Less than five minutes later (2:48 p.m.), Charles Warren, as haggard as any after a 5-footer for birdie at the last moved him to 14 under par, stood beside Disney’s scoring trailer studying the projected money. At 150th he didn’t have a Tour card, but he would avoid the second stage of Q-School this week if he could remain inside the top 150.
“I’m getting too old for this,” Warren sighed when the cash carrousel had finally stopped, leaving him $10,887 inside the top 150 and his tie for ninth assuring him a spot in the Sony Open to start 2011.
As the tournament tumbled along, largely a two-man race with Thatcher clinging to a one-stroke lead over Garrigus at the turn, a half dozen other less-obvious but just as emotional competitions came to dramatic endings.
At 2:56 p.m. Johnson Wagner double bogeyed the Magnolia Course’s 16th hole, dropped to 126th in earnings and staved off adrenaline, or fear, to hole a shaky 6 footer for par at No. 18.
“I’m about to break down right now,” said Wagner, who came up short at 126th but did avoid second stage with his tie for third place. “I’m just shaking. I love this job so much and you can’t try to protect your job.”
And so the timeline went – 3:05 p.m. cool-hand Michael Connell put the finishing touches on a 67-67 weekend to jump from 129th to 115th. Tom Pernice Jr. bogeyed two of his last three holes to fade to 139th.
At 3:45 p.m. Thatcher made a mess of the 17th, his second bogey in as many holes, to fall out of the lead and down to 131st in projected earnings. From tied for the Children’s Miracle Network Classic lead to bound for Q-School in 15 minutes – Space Mountain doesn’t bottom out that fast.
Ten minutes later a semi-surprised Garrigus gazed at the leaderboard adjacent the 18th hole, the math telling him he had 18 inches and two putts standing between himself and his first Tour title.
His final-round 64 was the round of the day, his climb from a drug rehab clinic in 2003 to Tour winner a comeback of epic proportions. Shame the Tour stopped handing out the Comeback Player of the Year award last season because few, if any, have rallied from so far.
“I was sitting on my couch in 2003. It was 3 a.m. and this info-merical came on about a drug rehab clinic in San Diego,” said Garrigus, who was 122nd in earnings starting the week and would have been remembered for blowing a three-stroke lead on the 72nd hole at Memphis this year had he not made Magic Kingdom magic. “Here it is, 3 a.m. and I’m high as a kite. I’m worthless. Something has to change.”
And the clock was still not finished. At 4:09 p.m. Troy Merritt tapped in for birdie from 1 ½ feet on the 17th hole, the winner of a three-man playoff for the $1 million Kodak Challenge over Rickie Fowler and Aaron Baddeley, not to mention the ultimate survivor at 125th in cash to close the year.
Earlier in the day Aron Price and Blake Adams, playing in the three-ball ahead of Merritt, teed off at No. 18 and ran back to the 17th green to watch the beanpole miss his 33-footer for the $1 million. Say what you will about the Kodak Challenge, there’s not much that can make the frat brothers sit up and take notice like a winner-take-all shootout.
In the final analysis, three players wedged their way into the top 125 (Thatcher, Connelly and Mark Wilson, who was already exempt for 2011 via his victory last year in Mexico) and three got bumped (Troy Matteson, who was already exempt via his victory at the 2009 Frys.com Open, Michael Allen and Woody Austin).
“I’m disappointed but there’s no one I can kick but myself and I’m tired of kicking myself,” Baird said.
Baird was halfway home to south Florida when the dust and decimal points settled. He was 127th in earnings, $33,400 behind Merritt, but at least his beloved Dolphins were 29-17 winners over Tennessee. It’s not a Tour card, but it is something.