It's been said that the PGA Tour is like high school, and that's an especially apt comparison as the Fall Series begins this week.
The kids who have washed out of the popular clique — or never got there in the first place — will tee off at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas. For players like Troy Merritt, who was one of the cool kids of 2010 after he won the Kodak Challenge in a playoff and finished 125th on the money list, the fall is desperation time. Merritt's fallen to 198th in 2011.
"In the past I've played some of my best golf late in the year," Merritt said at the recent Albertsons-Boise Open, where the Boise State alumnus was in contention until a final-round 71 dropped him into a tie for 11th place. "I'm hoping that'll be the case again this year."
The Fall Series is full of guys looking to apply the defib paddles to their moribund careers, including, for the first time, Tiger Woods, who will play next week's Frys.com Open. In high school terms, it will be like the captain of the football team suddenly dropping in on the "mathletes," golf's version of a John Hughes movie. It ought to be good.
Vegas, where Woods won his first of 71 Tour events in 1996, will feature Tour winners like Will MacKenzie (210th on the money list), major winners like David Duval (152nd), and preternaturally young-looking Champions Tour pro Tom Pernice (138th), who, like Fred Funk before him, refuses to leave the PGA Tour without a fight.
Nick Watney will be the highest-ranked player in the field at 11th in the World Ranking. Martin Laird, who lost a sudden-death playoff to Jonathan Byrd's ace in the dark at last year's Justin Timberlake, is ranked 33rd. Ryan Moore, who went to UNLV, is 48th. Byrd is 51st.
But the Timberlake, like the rest of the Fall Series, is not about the rankings. It's about the money list. With the golf season all but over as football takes primacy on the remote, the Tour turns into a Randy Newman song: "It's Money That Matters."
Joe Bramlett, who last December became the first African-American to get through the final stage of Q school in 25 years, is 191st on the money list heading into Vegas. He could use a big week. So could Boo Weekley (177th), the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team's playing mascot.
Meanwhile, the popular kids will either be home counting their millions — Bill Haas withdrew from Vegas before being named to the U.S. Presidents Cup team on Tuesday — or playing in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns — the European Tour's answer to the Crosby Clambake at Pebble.
Five of the top six ranked players in the world will tee it up at the Dunhill, which as usual will showcase not just golfers (Luke Donald, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Charl Schwartzel, Lee Westwood), but also actors (Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, Hugh Grant) and musicians (Huey Lewis, Tico Torres).
As much as Vegas will be about sorting out the back end of the Tour's money list, the Dunhill, with its strong field, could shift the game's balance of power at the top. Donald, who leads the money list ($5.84 million ) by less than $70,000 over Webb Simpson in the U.S., also leads the European Tour's money list with nearly 4 million Euros. That's more than 1.6 million ahead of second-place Rory McIlroy and about twice Westwood's total, but Westwood remains undaunted. Now that he's gone another year without winning a major, his goal has turned to dragging down Donald to win the Race to Dubai.
"I've been working with a new putting coach and I think I clicked on something," Westwood said. We'll see.
Short game: Ted Potter Jr., who won the Nationwide Tour's Soboba Golf Classic in a largely overlooked playoff last weekend for his second W of 2011, missed the cut in 24 of 24 Nationwide starts in 2004. … $575 separates No. 25 Brenden Pappas from No. 26 Garth Mulroy going into this week's WNB Golf Classic on the Nationwide. The top 25 players on the 2011 money list get their PGA Tour cards for next year. … With his start at this week's SAS Championship on the Champions Tour, Tom Kite will become the 12th player in history with at least 1,000 combined PGA-Champions tour starts. Hale Irwin hit the 1,000 mark in 2010. … Keegan Bradley's take of $3.76 million is the new earnings record for Nationwide Tour graduates in their first year on the PGA Tour. Brandt Snedeker made $2.84 million in '07. … Before he and opposing 2012 Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III threw out the first pitch at Monday's Chicago White Sox game, Euro captain Jose Maria Olazabal admitted he'd never thrown a baseball.