PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – There remains one last trophy to hand out this season.
Someone is leaving TPC Sawgrass with the hardware after winning the Web.com Tour Championship, that much we know. There will be a ceremony with plenty of pictures and smiles, not to mention the six-figure check.
But the true tournament, the battle that will decide career paths for the next 12 months, will be fought below the surface.
The infamous bubble, the slippery surface where cards are clinched and dreams are dashed, will be where the real tension is Sunday on Dye’s Valley Course. A select few will catapault onto the PGA Tour in two weeks’ time. A vast majority, however, will be relegated to another season on the developmental circuit, left only with a winter to rue what might have been.
A year ago, the bubble was the furthest thing from Derek Fathauer’s mind. He was cruising to victory at the season finale, a win that clinched the top spot on the Web.com Tour Finals money list and brought with it fully exempt status.
After an unsuccessful PGA Tour campaign, Fathauer is back at TPC Sawgrass and in a far different position. The defending champion entered this week at No. 33 in earnings, with cards going only to the top 25, but after a third-round 67 he is projected up to No. 22.
Fathauer knew that nerves would be in play this week with his card at stake, so he brought in his twin brother, Daryl, to caddie and add a bit of levity. The last-minute switch has paid dividends thus far.
“I needed to lighten it up, kind of free it up a little bit,” said Fathauer, who is tied for 17th at 5 under. “It was getting too intense for me.”
The 29-year-old knows that the pressure he felt entering the week will only be ratcheted up during the final round, especially in his precarious position. His Saturday dinner plans will include some tacos and a little tequila to “kind of kill my brain a little bit.”
“I would like to say I handle the pressure pretty well,” Fathauer said. “If I keep it simple, I should be fine. If I start kind of thinking ahead of myself is when I get into trouble.”
Unlike Fathauer, Kevin Tway has plenty of bubble experience. After a strong start to his Web.com season, Tway stalled out this summer and entered the final regular-season event at No. 26 on the season-long money list. He finished T-45, but failed to land a PGA Tour card.
Tway earned less than $7,000 during the first three Finals events, but now has vaulted from No. 62 to provisionally No. 23 on the Finals money list after a third-round 67, earning himself another chance at redemption.
“[The pressure] is probably worse off the course than on the course,” Tway said. “You play a lot of what-if games and sit in your hotel room coming up with scenarios, which doesn’t help anything.”
Tway’s final-round game plan? Keep the ball in the fairway, and keep his mouth full.
“Tomorrow just the same as usual, maybe try to eat a little bit more,” he said. “I tend to get sassy if I don’t eat a lot.”
Billy Hurley III started this week at No. 26 in earnings, right on the edge of a return to the PGA Tour. After rounds of 71-69-69, Hurley is tied for 49th and has fallen back a spot to No. 27 in the projections.
After an emotional summer that included the suicide of his father, Hurley has one last chance to turn things around and earn a trip back to the big leagues.
“I’m sure I’ll feel pressure tomorrow. I’d be lying if I said I was going to be completely loose,” Hurley said. “But at the end of the day, I do feel pretty peaceful about whatever happens, and I do feel good about my game.”
Luke Guthrie entered the last event of Finals without a postseason cent to his name, and after an opening 71 he appeared in danger of missing the cut. But he battled back to advance to the weekend, then added an old ally for the third round.
Guthrie swapped putters, opting for the one he used in 2012 when he won twice on the Web.com Tour. The change paid off immediately, as he carded a 5-under 65, the day’s low round. At 7 under, he is tied for seventh and has moved up to No. 32 in the latest projections.
Guthrie birdied his final hole at the Wyndham Championship to crack the top 150 of the FedEx Cup standings, securing conditional status in the process, and he plans to take an aggressive approach in the final round.
“For way too long, I’ve been playing golf not to make a mistake, and almost waiting for it,” Guthrie said. “I just need to go play great, go try to make birdies and don’t protect anything. Attack the course, don’t let the course attack you.”
Even PGA Tour winners aren’t immune to the pressures of Finals. Robert Garrigus appeared ready to clinch his card last week in Columbus, building a three-shot lead with eight holes to go. But the veteran imploded from there, shooting a back-nine 41 and entered this week at No. 33 in earnings.
Garrigus said the marathon effect of the four-week series is different than the sprint of Q-School, but he remains confident that his experience will pay off in the season’s final round.
“I know I can play golf with the best players in the world. I’ve done it before, I’ve been top 30 in the world before,” Garrigus said. “So I know it’s there. You just have to focus and keep everything on the down-low pretty much until you’re done.”
The mantra out here is that “every shot matters,” and nowhere is that more true than at the season finale. Status will be earned, lives will change and roads will diverge – sometimes based on the outcome of a single shot.
This is as nerve-wracking as it gets, and it will have nothing to do with who walks off with the trophy.