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The Top 150 The True Money Line

When Charles Warren left Walt Disney World Resort on Sunday for the short drive to Orlando International Airport he wasn’t sure if he was boarding a flight for Greenville, S.C., or California.

Warren had just put the finishing touches on a final-round 68, punctuated by a 5-footer for birdie at the last, in the season-ending Children’s Miracle Network Classic, but when he climbed behind the wheel of his courtesy car he wasn’t sure if he had done enough. He was trying to control his emotions. Trying to focus on the positive, but the uncertainty of the Tour’s season-ending bash makes even the most optimistic person go dark.

Charles Warren
Charles Warren finished 149th on the 2010 PGA Tour money list. (Getty Images)
“Whatever happens I played the last three in 1 under. I am proud of that,” Warren said.

Thirty minutes later, still unsure which flight he was going to board, he finally learned via a text message that his tie for ninth at Disney was enough. “Oh man, I’m getting too old for this,” he sighed with relief.

For those scoring at home, Warren did not finish inside the top 125 in Tour earnings, the long-held benchmark in sport’s most public pass-fail endeavor. In fact, he was some $212,000 adrift of that magic 125 threshold that was finally set by Troy Merritt. Yet Warren’s emotion at finishing 149th in earnings was a testament to how fluid Tour status has become.

Don’t get it twisted, Warren would rather have finished inside the top 125, but for a guy who started the week at 157th in earnings and faced the very real and capricious possibility of the second stage of Q-School, No. 149 isn’t a bad gig if you can get it.

Consider the alternative. Had Warren not cracked the top 150, which comes with limited Tour status in 2011 and exempts him from second stage, he would have teed off for the first round of second stage at Bayonet Golf Club in Seaside, Calif., on Wednesday. Had he not finished inside the top 20 at Bayonet and advanced to final stage next month he would begin ’11 with no Tour status of any kind and only limited, at best, Nationwide Tour status.

As tumbles go this scenario has a “Big League”-to-rookie-ball feel to it.

Media types fixate on the top 125, but the real Mendoza Line for many Tour types is top 150.

Although it is slightly skewed because of the “name” players who finished 2009 in the 126-150 category – including major champions David Duval and Todd Hamilton – of the dozen players who didn’t secure their cards at Q-School who played with 150 status in 2010, they had an average of 22 starts this season.

Although it might not be the best status, given the depth of the modern Tour top 150 is not a bad option – particularly if the mini-tours are the alternative.

“It used to be I could play pretty well out here (PGA Tour) and finish inside the top 20,” said Michael Allen, who finished the season 130th in earnings but will be content to ply his trade on the Champions Tour in 2011. “Now, I can play well and miss the cut. It’s gotten so much harder.”

Consider the current parity on the PGA Tour. Matt Kuchar won the money title with $4.9 million. That’s the lowest winning cash total since Duval took the money crown in 1998. Or, to put it in practical terms, the scoring average between Kuchar, who led the circuit with a 69.61 average, is barely a stroke per round better than Michael Letzig (70.95), who is the year’s ultimate “bubble boy” at 150th in earnings.

It’s little wonder that Warren climbed on that flight bound for South Carolina with a 500-pound weight lifted from his shoulders.

Nicholas Thompson was not as fortunate. He began Disney week clinging to the 150th spot, struggled on Sunday to an 81 and finished 2010 ranked 153rd, about $17,000 behind Letzig. Less than three days later he was back at work at second stage.

Maybe the most telling moment of money list clarity came as Johnson Wagner began collecting his belongings from his golf bag late Sunday. At one point on a wild Sunday, Wagner was inside the top 125, double bogeyed the Magnolia Course’s 16th hole and nervously two-putted from 35 feet at the last to tie for third place. Although he came up $33,175 shy of Merritt in earnings, he jumped 27 spots on the money list to 126th, secured a start in the 2011 full-field opener in Hawaii with his top-10 Disney finish (T-3) and, most importantly, avoided the grind of second stage.

“I really didn’t want to play in Houston next week,” Wagner smiled, referring to the second stage qualifier he was signed up to play had he not cracked the 150 ceiling.

For many the top 150 is the year’s ultimate mulligan, with it a chance at redemption at the final stage of Q-School, a safety net with limited 2011 status and a reason to exhale. Just ask Warren.Last we heard, he was on a flight home to South Carolina.