Stephen Ames won for his son.
Fred Vuich/SI
By Gary Van Sickle
Monday, November 16, 2009

The gravy train stops here. The Children's Miracle Network Classic — or the Disney, as Tour players have always called it because the tournament is played on the Magnolia and Palm courses at Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — is the last official Tour stop of the year and the place where harsh reality is doled out right next to Fantasyland: Finish outside the top 125 on the seasonlong money list, and you're going back to dreaded qualifying school, the Nationwide tour or worse.

As a result the Disney annually offers an odd mix of players. Some tee it up so their families can enjoy a week at the theme parks, while others solemnly battle to stay on the big-money Tour. So the Disney is either a kick-back-and-chill, kids-in-the-pool week or Custer's last stand.

"I've never had any success at this event, but my kids love it," says Tour veteran Jason Bohn, who was already safely exempt for next year before finishing 40th last week. "I simply can't look them in the face and say, 'I'm not playing [the Disney].' I hope I'm never in the position to play for my job during the week. We have too much fun."

Last week fun was often in short supply on the course, despite typically low scores. Sure, the contenders enjoyed the week, or most of it. Stephen Ames, Justin Leonard and George McNeill finished 72 holes in a tie at 18-under 270 after Leonard's potential winning 16-footer on the final green lipped out. Leonard already had his right arm raised in victory, but that bit of bad karma came back to bite him in the playoff when he three-putted the first extra hole and was eliminated.

McNeill had similar misfortune on the second extra hole. In a gravity-defying move his par putt horseshoed out, giving Ames his second Disney title in three years. This one was better, said the 45-year-old, because he birdied five of the last seven holes for a hard-charging 64 and because his son Ryan, 10, was there watching him play.

But at the Disney, who wins is almost irrelevant. The Disney is about who survives. This year, only two struggling players, Nicholas Thompson (11th) and Jimmy Walker (15th), saved their jobs by playing their way into the top 125, in the process bumping David Duval and Robert Garrigus, who each missed the cut.

Duval, once upon a time the top-ranked player in the game, came to Disney as the designated Bubble Boy, sitting squarely at No. 125 on the money list, a mild surprise considering that he nearly won the U.S. Open in June. His missed cut resulted in Duval's slipping to 130. That means he'll have conditional status in 2010, can trade off his name for sponsors' exemptions and will probably make at least 18 starts. He is exempt into the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open based on his tie for second at Bethpage. Like the others outside the top 125, Duval also has the option to improve his status by playing at Q school this year, but that doesn't sound likely. "November rolls around and you want to shut it down," Duval says.

The 26-year-old Thompson, whose sister, 14-year-old Alexis, has already played in three U.S. Women's Opens as an amateur, showed how thick the pressure can be when your job is on the line. On Sunday he was sailing along at seven under through 17 holes, and his finish projected him at 116th on the money list. Then on the par-4 18th the fifth-year pro pushed a tee shot into the trees, and his ball came to rest between some roots. He gouged out a slicing recovery shot — bending the hosel of his six-iron in the process — that finished dangerously close to a water hazard. Was he nervous? Well, have you ever seen a player pace off a 50-yard pitch — twice? Thompson still left his approach almost 50 feet short, and his first putt wasn't much better, coming up nine feet shy.

"I figured if I made 4, I was golden," Thompson says, "and if I made 5, I'd still have a chance." Asked how he knew where he stood, he answered that he simply estimated the expected prize money and crunched the numbers. "I went to Georgia Tech," Thompson said. "I can do those calculations on the fly."

There was no mistaking how much that nine-foot bogey putt meant. Thompson emphatically punched the air after he rolled it in to finish at No. 123 and save his Tour card.

Rickie Fowler's bid to earn a card the Tiger Woods way — by leaving school (Oklahoma State) early, turning pro late in the season and then winning enough in a limited number of starts to crack the top 125 — fell just short. Fowler made some noise by opening with a 66, but a second-round 75 sank his chances for a needed top 10 finish. Fowler finished 40th but $91,593 short of 125 and will attend the final stage of Q school in December at Bear Lakes in West Palm Beach, Fla. "I had nothing to lose," he says. "I knew I had to play really well."

Fowler's late-season run was remarkable. While still an amateur this summer he lost a Nationwide event in a playoff and led the U.S. Walker Cup team to an easy victory. After turning pro in September, he signed endorsement deals with Puma and Titleist, almost won the Frys.com Open (losing in a playoff) and earned $571,090 in only three starts. A terrific putter and wedge player, with personality and a killer instinct, Fowler is star material. His setback at Disney only delayed the inevitable. "I feel as if I can play with these guys," Fowler says. "I'll find a way to get out there."

A bunch of more familiar names also failed to crack the top 125, including major winners Todd Hamilton (2004 British Open), Tom Lehman ('96 British), 2010 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin ('95 U.S. Open) and Steve Elkington ('95 PGA winner). Lehman, who split time on the PGA and Champions tours this year, says he may cash in a career-money-list exemption for the '10 Tour season. Pavin may do that too. Hamilton's five-year exemption as a British Open champ has expired, so he may go to Q school. He's also considering playing in Europe because his British win came with a 10-year exemption to play there if he accepts a European tour membership. "Who knows?" he said glumly at the Disney. "I may like it."

Rocco Mediate, the Cinderella story of 2008, when he took Woods to overtime at the U.S. Open, won't be exempt in '10, either. Mediate, who turns 47 next month, missed the cut by a mile (seven strokes) at the Disney and says he's hurting and will not go to Q school. "No golf until January for me," he says. "My back is really messy. I need to get in the gym for four or five weeks and get my back in shape."

Rich Beem, winner of the 2002 PGA Championship, was a name player who did survive, thanks to a closing 68. He played in Sunday's first threesome and finished an hour and a half before the money list was final. As play was concluding, Beem ambled into the press room in the Shades of Green hotel wearing his usual off-course uniform — T-shirt, shorts and sandals — and swigging from a coffee cup. "How does it look?" he asked. Beem stood 122nd on the money list and was assured his chances were excellent. (Indeed, he would stay right there.)

Convinced that his exempt status was official, Beem departed, leaving a trail of hugs and wisecracks.

He also wore a big smile. Maybe it was the "coffee" or maybe it was the knowledge that in 2010 he still has a ticket on golf's gravy train.

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