Disney offers competition from top to bottom
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.—Kevin Chappell was on the Magnolia Course practice range at Disney, his only concern getting in nine holes of practice under gathering clouds and trying to remember which golf cart was his.
It's a relaxing week at the Children's Miracle Network Classic, but not for everyone. So when Chappell saw a familiar face behind him, he asked, "Are you paying attention to the top or the bottom?"
For a town geared toward amusement, stress is running high across from the Magic Kingdom.
At the top is Webb Simpson and Luke Donald, who are No. 1 and No. 2 on the PGA Tour money list, both believing that to win the money title would also make them heavy favorites to win player of the year.
At the bottom are players who are struggling to finish in the top 125 to keep full-time jobs for next year.
"I'm here to win the money title, and I'm probably going to need to win to do that," said Donald, who is $363,029 behind Simpson. "So it feels a little bit like the
Donald finished in a three-way tie for third at the Tour Championship, and thus wound up third in the FedEx Cup. But a final birdie at East Lake gave him a small lead on the money list -- until Simpson decided to play Sea Island last week, lost in a playoff and picked up $432,000 to move well ahead.
Simpson feels as though he has nothing to lose regardless of what happens. A year ago, he was No. 207 in the world and had just secured his PGA Tour card. Now he is golf's only $6 million man, a two-time winner who is No. 12 in the world.
"Talking to my wife yesterday, we just said, 'If we don't win the money title or player of the year, in no way will we be disappointed,'" Simpson said. "We obviously want to do those things, but this year has been a success all throughout. Whatever happens, we're going to be happy. But we do want to finish strong and try to have a clean sweep. It would be awesome."
The stress is far greater toward the bottom.
The PGA Tour decided to put Simpson and Donald in the same group the opening two rounds, which surprised no one. They will have amateur partners on the Palm and Magnolia courses before the cut is made after Friday, and then the amateurs leave and everyone plays the final two rounds on the longer, stronger Magnolia course.
The mischievous side of golf officials was putting Bobby Gates and James Driscoll -- Nos. 124 and 125 on the money list -- in the same group as both feel the heat of trying to make the cut, and then set about making sure they stay in the top 125.
"I think they have kind of a twisted irony in them," Gates said. "It's tough, but it's our jobs, and we're competing against each other."
Among those on the bubble are D.J. Trahan at No. 123 and Billy Mayfair at No. 127.
Matt Jones was on the Disney range Wednesday morning a few spots away from Chappell, and they could not have looked any differently. Chappell would blast a beautiful fade with his driver, then stop to chat. Jones lined up a pair of rectangular boxes on each side of his golf ball, trying to work on his swing plane.
Chappell had a rewarding rookie season -- runner-up in the Texas Open, a tie for third in the U.S. Open (which earned him a trip to the Masters net year) and more than $1 million in earnings to place No. 83 on the money list.
Jones was at No. 121 going into the Fall Series. He opened with a 65 in Las Vegas, two off the lead, and missed the cut. Last week at Sea Island, he opened with a 65 and was two off the lead, and missed the cut.
At no other tournament -- Q-school might be an exception -- is there such a disparity in emotions.
Robert Garrigus is the defending champion, on the verge of going back to Q-school until he won Disney for his first PGA Tour title. He knows the feeling of struggling for a card better than most.
"It's kind of like knowing you might be the CEO of a company, and if you don't play well, you're going to be the janitor," he said.
That's not the case for Simpson and Donald, who have been cleaning up all year.
Donald is No. 1 in the world, and that gets little argument from his peers. He has been a steady presence on the leaderboard, winning the Match Play Championship $5.8 million on the PGA Tour despite playing in seven fewer tournaments than Simpson.
"It's clear that for all practical purposes -- and I think most guys would agree -- he is the best player in the world," Simpson said. "To play both tours and to have the success he's had winning on both tours ... he's just done an incredible job."
Simpson has won twice in his last six starts, although he didn't just show up overnight. Simpson also contended in Tampa earlier in the year, and lost a playoff in New Orleans.
Two strong players. Two strong years.
Donald hasn't been to Disney since 2003, when he was No. 114 in the world. He wasn't planning on being here this week until it became his only shot at history. No one has ever won the money title on the European Tour and PGA Tour in the same year. He has a comfortable lead in Europe, and suddenly faces long odds at Disney. Third place -- no matter what Simpson does -- won't be enough.