GREENSBORO, N.C. – Two-minute drill. Bottom of the ninth. Crunch time.
Whichever sports metaphor you prefer, it can be applied to this week’s Wyndham Championship.
Players have one final chance to jockey for FedEx Cup playoff position, although many in the field are simply trying to secure playing privileges for next season.
Given only 72 holes to improve their season-long standing, some will wilt under the pressure. Others, though, have been under a similar spotlight before and continue to thrive.
Heath Slocum knows what this feels like. It was only two years ago that Slocum came to Sedgefield Country Club at No. 128 in the FedEx Cup standings, on the outside looking in. He tied for 31st, which was enough to propel him to No. 124 in points and punch his ticket to the playoffs. He remains the most recent player to crack the top 125 in the final regular-season event.
Slocum also knows the value of simply earning a spot at the dance. It was five years ago that he entered the postseason at No. 124, only to hold off the likes of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Steve Stricker to win The Barclays at Liberty National. The win vaulted him up the standings, and he went on to make the 2009 Tour Championship.
This week, Slocum’s hole is a bit deeper. At No. 158 in points, he likely needs a top-three finish to make it to The Barclays, but he’s halfway there after rounds of 65-65 put him atop the leaderboard with Scott Langley in Greensboro.
The key for dealing with do-or-die pressure, according to Slocum? Just let go.
“That’s been one of my biggest things, sometimes it’s just getting out of my own way, just stop trying to do too much,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to take a step back and just go, ‘Have fun with it. Go play.’”
Slocum has done just that through two rounds at Sedgefield, grabbing the pole position heading into the weekend as he looks to win on Tour for the fifth time, and first since the 2010 McGladrey Classic. He missed the cut in each of his last two starts, but the 40-year-old claims to have found a spark during practice last week.
“I said, ‘You know what? It’s all here. See if you can’t go play golf and enjoy it,’” he said. “I mean, sometimes you just go and enjoy yourself and you play some of your best golf.”
Like Slocum, Andrew Loupe is in familiar territory. Loupe has become a poster child for last-minute comebacks in recent years, a trend that began when he holed a 6-foot putt to make it through the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School in 2012. After a debut season on the Web.com Tour in 2013, Loupe needed to hole a putt of similar length at the final regular-season event to qualify for the inaugural Web.com Tour Finals.
Then after missed cuts in each of the first three Finals events, he came to the Web.com Tour Championship in dire need of a big result. After four straight rounds in the 60s, he left with a T-6 finish and a PGA Tour card for the 2013-14 season.
Now he’s at it again, entering the week at No. 145 in the FedEx Cup standings and likely in need of a top-six finish to crack the top 125 and sew up a PGA Tour card for 2015.
“I’ve been in this position before. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s pretty similar,” Loupe said. “That’s something I tell myself to remind myself, for security and confidence. You have to believe in yourself, and do your best to stay in the present. I know people say that all the time, but it’s true.”
Loupe has had no trouble staying in the present this week, and after rounds of 65 and 68 he sits three shots behind Slocum. The pressure-cooker that causes trouble for so many players is one that Loupe is comfortable with, and as a multi-sport athlete growing up he enjoys competing when the stakes are high.
“It’s an enjoyable stress level, I guess,” he said. “There’s nothing better than playing in front of a bunch of people with something on the line. It’s a great feeling.”
For Slocum, the goal is still maintaining his full-time status with a high finish this week, but the Web.com Tour Finals serve as a suitable back-up plan. Last year, he joined Loupe as one of 25 players to survive the four-event gauntlet and earn cards for this season.
His plan, then, is to build momentum – whether his destination beyond this week is New Jersey for the playoffs, or Fort Wayne, Ind., for the Finals – and enjoy the opportunity to be back in the mix over the weekend.
“No matter win, lose or draw, I will go have fun the next two days,” he said. “I do miss this feeling of being in contention. So not being in contention for a while, I’m going to savor it.”