Welcome to the last stop on the Hail Mary Tour, also known as the Children's Miracle Network Classic, the final official event of the PGA Tour season and a place where desperate golfers fighting for their jobs take desperate measures.
The Disney, as most of the players call the tournament because it's held on the Magnolia and Palm courses at Disney World, is the final chance for players to earn partial or fully exempt status for 2009. Yet although the Disney is the most pressure- packed regular Tour event of the year, it is also on the must- play list for every pro whose wife and kids want to kick back at the Magic Kingdom.
"It's really a paradox," says Joe Durant, who won the Disney in 2006 but left Orlando last week a disappointing 128th on the money list and with only conditional status for '09. "It should be the most relaxed atmosphere on Tour, but a bunch of guys are in agony. We're all grinding hard because nobody wants to go back to Q school."
Boo Weekley, the Ryder Cup hero and backwoods philosopher, was among the lucky vacationer types. Asked if he was going to practice after one of his rounds, Weekley grinned and said, "No, sir. I have to go find my son at the park. He's probably got Mickey in a headlock."
At the other extreme was Tommy (Two Gloves) Gainey, who nearly completed one of the Tour's alltime Hail Marys. A 33-year-old rookie who had won only $65,405 all season and was buried at No. 228 on the money list, Gainey endured a Bob Uecker-like summer 0 for June, 0 for July, 0 for August, 0 for September. Then he nearly won the final tournament of the year, a thriller that wasn't decided until the last stroke on the last hole of the last round, when Davis Love III made a clutch par save from a greenside bunker to edge Gainey by a shot, 25 under to 24 under.
"I had nothing to lose," said Gainey after shooting 30 on the back nine for the second straight day. All Love did was fire back-to-back 64s on the weekend. It was a heck of a shootout for two players who couldn't get any Mutt and Jeffier.
Love is of the country club, the 44-year-old son of a legendary golf instructor. He has earned $37 million in his career, played in six Ryder Cups and won prestigious titles such as the Players and the PGA Championship.
Gainey used to wrap insulation around water heaters on an assembly line in McBee, S.C., and is a latecomer to professional golf. His homemade game, highlighted by an exaggerated grip, with a right hand underneath the club and a bent-over stance, looks more suitable for ditchdigging. The shiniest things on his resume, until now, are star turns on Golf Channel's Big Break, a reality show, and successfully running the gantlet at last year's qualifying school. He's called Two Gloves because he wears a glove on each hand, usually a black one. It's a habit he brought from his baseball days, and why not he uses a 10-finger baseball grip to play golf.
Noting their differences, Gainey, who lives in Bishopville, S.C., says, "Davis went to North Carolina. He was an all-star, he was all-world. I graduated from high school and went to work."
So how did Two Gloves wind up as the last man standing in a shootout with Love? By turning around his game. Gainey made the cut in four of his last six starts, including one on the Nationwide tour, with caddie Don Donatello on the bag. Donatello, a fellow Big Break contestant, helped Gainey focus on his weak short game, taking him to Rife's studio in Orlando to get fitted for a new putter.
Gainey discovered there that he had been aiming left of the target, as Donatello had suspected, and that he needed a shorter putter 34 inches instead of 35. The studio visit was on Nov. 4. By last Friday, when Gainey shot a second-round 66, he was enjoying newfound confidence on the greens. "I ain't one to complain about a 66," he said, "but I left a couple out there or that could've been something around 59."
Earlier this year Gainey would've given anything for a 66. The new Tommy Two Gloves expected to make every putt. Stats don't lie. Gainey ranked 177th on Tour in putting for the year. Last week he led the field.
"He has plenty enough skills to play out here," Donatello says. "He has the talent; he needs polish."
The big finish was big stuff for Gainey. There was the money, for starters a payoff of $496,800, almost eight times what he had won in his first 23 starts. Asked if he'd been running a deficit in '08, he said, "I'll say this: I wasn't making much."
His winnings lifted him inside the top 150 on the money list (148th), which gives him conditional status for next year he can play in any tournament he can get in with his low standing.
It also gives him a pass to the final stage of Q school in December, but even if he doesn't make it through Q school, he'll tee it up in the first fullfield event of '09, the Sony Open in Hawaii, by virtue of his top 10 finish in Orlando.
Skipping the second qualifying stage, a top 150 perk Gainey wasn't aware of, meant he suddenly got this week off, so he planned to drive home to Bishopsville on Sunday night, a seven-hour trip. "I'm not going to sleep tonight anyway," he said.
The Disney was his seventh straight tournament, which means it has been seven weeks since he's seen his six-month- old son, Tommy Gainey III.
Gainey says that he's no longer with the woman who bore his son, an emotional distraction that didn't help his mental focus during his difficult rookie season.
"I'm playing for him now," Gainey says. "I miss him a lot. I can't wait to see him."
Gainey made the most significant move on the money list, but there were other award-worthy jumps.
The He's Got Guts Award (Though Not As Many As He Used To) goes to Jeff Overton, who began the week as the official bubble boy at 125 on the list. He ranked that high only because he played the Ginn sur Mer Classic the week before, only nine days after having his appendix removed. Playing in pain that sometimes had him twitching on his follow- through, Overton somehow came in 21st. He felt considerably better in Orlando and a closing 69 lifted him to 118th on the final list and clinched his Tour card for '09, making his gut-wrenching performance a week earlier that much more impressive.
The Ponce De Leon Cup goes to 49-year-old Michael Allen, who began the week at 123rd and was prepping for the Champions tour Q school. Allen, who'll turn 50 in January, finished ninth and wound up 106th on the money list. Now that he's exempt for the PGA Tour again, he'll skip the senior Q school and stay on the big Tour, where the competition is considerably better but so is the money.
Scotland's Martin Laird, 25, gets the Mover and Shaker Trophy. He was the only player to begin the week outside the top 125 (126th) and end up inside it. He holed a par-saving seven- foot putt on the 72nd hole that proved to be the stroke that lifted him to No. 125, although he would've been bumped to nonexempt status if Gainey had won.
"I knew if I missed that last putt, I had no chance," said Laird, who was relieved but visibly shaking when he came out of the scoring cabin after his round.
The Roberto de Vicenzo Golden Scorecard goes to Shane Bertsch, who missed 2007 due to vertigo and played this year on a medical extension. He had to win about $785,000 in 25 events to retain his exemption, which he did, but Bertsch misinterpreted the rule. He thought meeting the requirement exempted him for '09. Instead, it exempted him for the remainder of '08. He didn't learn of his error until the Tuesday of Disney week, after he had already skipped the Ginn sur Mer Classic to sprinkle his father's ashes on their favorite hunting ground in North Dakota. Bertsch ranked 124th upon arrival at Disney, missed the cut and slipped to 126th, about $11,500 behind Laird. Ouch.
Finally, let's present the Lifetime Achievement Award, or a reasonable facsimile, to Love. His 20th career Tour victory earns him a lifetime exemption on the PGA Tour, which means he'll never have to worry about making the top 125.
Love is a candidate for the comeback player of the year, too, having worked his way back from a major ankle injury that required surgery about this time last year. Love's closing 64s gave him 15 consecutive rounds in the 60s at the Disney, breaking a tournament record held by Tiger Woods.
"At least I got one of his records," Love said, joking.
That's something. After all, it is a small, small world.