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Top 125 isn't the key number this week

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The dichotomy of the circuit’s Disney stop hits you the moment you come face to face with the world’s most iconic rodent and realize there’s a reason why Mickey Mouse is always smiling: He’s never had to play to keep his PGA Tour card.

To hear the hype, the Tour turns the happiest place on earth into the place where golf dreams go to die. The bubble, as the loosely defined area around No. 125 on the money list is known, will become an ever-present line of demarcation that no professional wants to cross.

On this, however, art doesn’t exactly imitate life. Media-driven hyperbole aside, the top 125 is more of a soft cap when it comes to Tour status.

“Everyone wants to make a bigger deal out of things than they are,” said Bobby Gates, No. 124 in earnings entering this week’s Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic.

Keep your happiness to yourself, OK?

Before you dismiss Gates’ take as sports psychology mumbo jumbo, know that his laissez faire attitude has more to do with Tour minutia than mind games. Finishing inside the top 125 is certainly a way to make the holidays more festive, but there are 33 different categories for access to Tour events, which makes the top 125 more of a guideline.

This isn’t exactly dogma busting, but considering the amount of top-125 PSAs we’ll hear this week, it’s worth pointing out that trying to finish inside the top 150 in earnings is much more pressure packed than the benchmark 125. Similarly, making it out of the second stage of Q-School, not the final frame, is also a much more harrowing experience.

“I seem pretty stressed out about the 125, don’t I?” said Steve Flesch, who is    130th in earnings.

It’s not that Flesch is indifferent to the realities of job security, it’s just the veteran understands the convoluted system that governs access to Tour events.

Consider Johnson Wagner, who double-bogeyed the 16th hole on Sunday at Disney last year to drop to 126th in earnings, played 24 events in 2011; while Will MacKenzie, who finished 152nd on last year’s money list, managed just 14 starts.

Players finishing between Nos. 126-150 can expect anywhere from 15 to 18 starts, not a windfall but to pinch a line from the cult classic “Dumb and Dumber,” “So you’re saying there’s a chance.”

In 2007 Steve Lowery suffered through the worst year of his career and finished 148th in earnings. The next spring he outdueled Vijay Singh in a playoff at Pebble Beach for his third Tour title.

“Both situations are high-pressure (No. 126 and 151),” Kevin Streelman said. “But 126 will get in 16 events. (No.) 151 gets in zero. You can make great things happen with 16 events.”

James Driscoll (pictured) is the “bubble” poster child this year at 125th in earnings, but his position last year was much more precarious (154th) entering the finale. Even after missing the Disney cut by one stroke he rebounded to earn his card at Q-School and played 24 events this season.

But that happy ending was contingent on Driscoll playing his way through the second stage of Q-School, a potential pink slip for the modern professional.

“The 151 spot is brutal because you go from something to nothing,” said Flesch, pointing out the automatic exemption to final stage that players receive if they finish inside the top 150. “Second stage is so tough. I got through second stage one time in seven tries.”

If Tour card minutia seems mind numbing it is because it is, and this goes far beyond the relative simplicity of finishing 126th vs. 151st.

In five starts this year Adam Hadwin has won $440,000, enough to rank him 145th in earnings. Exempt to final stage, right? Wrong. Hadwin began the year without any Tour status and needed to match what No. 150 made last year to become a temporary member. In 2010 that magic number was $563,000, compared to $401,000 this year, which means Hadwin is headed for second stage.

Confused? Most Tour players are, which is why the reaction on Wednesday as players readied for the cash dash was so subdued.

“Q-School isn’t that bad,” said Robert Garrigus, who began the week last year at Disney 122nd in earnings and won. “Everybody makes it out to be the worst thing in the world. I’ve been through 10 of them. I just figured it was an eight-day vacation wherever the hell it was.”

Which would make Disney a four-day vacation, as if it could be anything else, at least for those lucky few with options beyond the top 125. For the likes of Driscoll it’s the difference between playing for a really good job and a not-so-bad gig in 2012. But for those drifting around the 150-bubble, now that’s pressure not even Mickey would smile about.