LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — J.P. Hayes is feeling much better about his health than the last time he was in these parts on the PGA Tour. And thanks to a 7-under 65 on Thursday at Disney, his prospects for keeping his card are looking good, too.
Hayes turned a sloppy hole into a birdie on the par-5 10th at Magnolia, then ran off four more birdies in wet and windy conditions to build a one-shot lead in the Children’s Miracle Network Classic.
Hayes is No. 123 on the money list with a $16,599 cushion. This is the final event of the PGA Tour season, and the way the Fall Series has gone, no one feels safe. Already, nine players have cracked into the top 125.
“I wouldn’t say I was worried about it,” Hayes said. “I’d really like to finish in the top 125. Everybody would like to perform better and play less, like Tiger. Unfortunately, not all of us can.”
Cameron Beckman, who secured his card last week, played with a sore back but virtually no stress and raced out to a bogey-free 66 in the morning on the longer, tougher Magnolia course. He was joined by Scott Verplank and Ryuji Imada, who played the Palm Course.
Justin Leonard, Woody Austin and Tim Clark, three guys who have no worries about next year, were in a large group at 65 with a couple of guys still sweating it out — Dicky Pride, who is at No. 159, and Tag Ridings, who at No. 210 can only keep his card with a victory.
Such concerns now seem but small details to someone like Hayes, 42, who was far more worried about his heart this spring.
He was about an hour down Interstate 4 outside Tampa in March when he felt heart palpitations during the PODS Championship, then dropped to his knees with a light head while walking down the first fairway of the final round.
He was taken to the hospital overnight, wondering if he had suffered a stroke. After seven days of tests at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, doctors diagnosed him with vaso-vagal syncope, in which his blood pressure drops when it should be rising.
If that wasn’t enough to shape his perspective on golf, his pro-am partner in the first round did the trick. Hayes was paired with a Zak Russell, a 19-year-old from Toronto who was born two months premature with a bad connection between the trachea and esophagus, meaning it could allow food or stomach acid into his lungs.
Russell has gone through 14 surgeries, and has survived to sport a good game in golf, snowboarding and football.
“You look at that and say, ‘Wow!’ Hayes said.
Another wow factor for Hayes might be collecting his first victory in five years, although there’s still three days to go on rain-soaked resort courses and a leaderboard that is as bunched as ever at Disney.
Seventy players were within five shots of the lead.
Tadd Fujikawa, the 16-year-old from Hawaii playing on a sponsor’s exemption, birdied three straight holes early in his round before a couple of three-putts slowed his momentum. He settled for a 71, leaving him a chance to make his first cut as a pro. With the Magic Kingdom across the street, he picked the perfect metaphor for his round.
“It was a roller coaster out there,” he said.
It has been that way for most players in the Fall Series, many of whom are trying to secure their positions inside the top 125 for next year, with a few of them — Leonard, for one — hopeful of cracking the top 30 to get into the Masters.
Beckman has already gone through the drill.
He was 149th in the FedEx Cup standings, missing the playoffs by a mere 153 points. That gave him a four-week vacation, enough time for him to take stock of his position and realize he’d better to get to work. He had seven weeks to avoid another trip to Q-school.
“I got ready to go,” he said. “I knew my position coming into the Fall Series. I don’t want to go to tour school. And with the FedEx Cup, you don’t want to be in the tour school.”
No need to worry now. Beckman tied for third in Las Vegas to get on the cusp of that magic No. 125, then broke through last week in south Florida with a tie for fifth that moved him up to No. 118, essentially securing his card for next year.
“Compared to the stress level I’ve had the last six weeks, this was nothing,” Beckman said. “I felt like I was playing a practice round.”
Divots: MacKinzie Kline, the 15-year-old with a congenital heart defect who played on the LPGA Tour this season, was in the pro-am pairing with Fujikawa, although they were not partners. It was a huge day for Kline because she walked the last 16 holes. Kline was given permission to use a cart at the Ginn Tribute on the LPGA Tour because she was recovering from recent surgery to fix a hole in her heart. “I haven’t done that in a long time,” Kline said. “It was very exciting. The one thing I really want to do is walk all 18 holes.” Fujikawa loved having her along. “I haven’t played with someone my age in a long time,” he said. … John Daly, who has walked out of six tournaments this year, said he was disappointed not to get a sponsor’s exemption to Disney. Lo and behold, Daly could have made it as an alternate based on his status as a past champion, but he wasn’t at Disney to claim the spot and the tour took the next guy in line. … The Canadian Open finally got a title sponsor Wednesday when the Royal Bank of Canada agreed to a deal.