The happiest place on earth, except for those grinding for a PGA Tour card
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – One player dug his feet into the sand and hit one bunker shot after another, his focus unbroken. A few hundred yards away, another player cast his line into a pond filled with bass next to the 15th tee on the Magnolia Course.
Disney is a vacation for some, a grind for so many others. It's easy to see who falls into which category.
This is the final PGA Tour event of the year, and the stakes have never been higher. The top 125 on the money list keep full tour cards, meaning they can play whenever and wherever they want next year except for the majors, World Golf Championships and a few other invitational events that have smaller fields.
That much hasn't changed.
What makes a tour card so valuable now is that 2013 is a transition year on the PGA Tour, which translates into a shorter season with fewer opportunities. The regular season will last only about seven months leading into the FedEx Cup playoffs. After that, a new season (2013-14) will start in October.
For the last six years, players who either didn't get into a lot of tournaments or got off to a slow start could always count on the Fall Series — four tournaments at the back end of the season — to make up ground and get into the top 125. But that opportunity is going away. The Fall Series events, along with two tournaments in Asia, will be the start of the new wraparound season.
Players who finish out of the top 125 can still play, as long as there was room for them at tournaments. They had to get in line behind the fully exempt players, along with 50 others who earned cards through Q-school and the Web.com Tour.
But with more players expected to sign up for more tournaments in the shorter season, playing opportunities for the others could be limited.
That's putting it nicely.
"Those guys are in deep, deep trouble," William McGirt said after a few attempts trying to find the right words for a family newspaper.
McGirt was in that position last year, needing a big finish at Disney to keep his card. He didn't come particularly close, wound up at No. 141 and earned his card at Q-school. Knowing that status out of Q-school would be lower this year, imagine his relief when McGirt was runner-up at the Canadian Open to secure his card. He is at No. 70 with just over $1.2 million. The only roller coaster he will be on this week can be found across the street at the Magic Kingdom.
"Compared with last year, this is as relaxed as you can be," McGirt said Tuesday. "I've talked to a couple of guys about that situation. I told them the last thing you can do is think about it. From the U.S. Open last year, it was getting into FedEx Cup, and I went from that to keeping my job. I spent the better part of last year thinking about what would happen. I was mentally fried."
McGirt wound up playing every tournament for which he was eligible from June to early November, 14 events in 17 weeks.
Disney has been the final official event on the PGA Tour schedule for the last six years, and it's always been fascinating to watch the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Those who were safe inside the top 125 on the money list were mainly concerned about the lines at Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Those on the outside were concerned about keeping their jobs. There is tension over every shot, broken up by the long, low whistle from the train at Thunder Mountain.
Jeff Maggert, who turns 49 in February, has been on the PGA Tour for 22 years. His first tour victory was at Disney in 1993, when the tournament had to set up floodlights on the final hole to beat darkness. He had to go to Q-school last year, made it with a few shots to spare, and is on the bubble at No. 122 on the money list. He feels reasonably good about his chances because he has a $51,533 lead over Billy Mayfair at No. 125.
"It's probably going to be difficult for tour school players to get in events early in the year," Maggert said, looking ahead to 2013. "Guys will play a lot of tournaments because of the shorter season. It's good to be fully exempt. The top 125 on the money list is probably a bigger deal than in the past."
The top 150 used to be significant. Even if a player wasn't fully exempt, he could count on playing about 15 to 18 tournaments a year.
"It's not like 125 is really good status and 126 to 150 is pretty good," David Mathis said after wrapping up his tour card a few weeks ago. "Now it's like 125 is awesome and 126 to 150 is terrible. That's kind of how the players view it."
Kevin Chappell began the Fall Series by getting engaged. It's going to be easier to plan a wedding knowing that he's fully exempt next year, but the Californian has work left. Chappell is at No. 123, and only $7,318 separates him from Gary Christian at No. 127. Even finishing last at Disney pays more than that, so it starts with making the cut.
"If you finish 126th and don't go to tour school, you're 50 people behind the guy that's 125th on the money list," Maggert said. "You've put 50 guys ahead of you fighting for spots to get into a tournament. And if you don't get any starts until two or three months into the season, with a short season you're pretty far behind."
A year ago, Roland Thatcher missed the cut at Disney and lost his card by $1,695. Thatcher played out of the No. 126-150 category this year and got into 20 events, a number that figures to shrink next year. D.J. Trahan finished 125th on the money list and played 26 times.
Disney bills itself as the "happiest place on earth." There were plenty of long faces on the practice green, which was quiet even for a Tuesday.