There wasn't much lip service paid to the love of the game at
last week's Las Vegas Invitational. Poetic waxings about the
purity of a well-struck shot were also scarce. As the last
official full-field tournament of the PGA Tour season, Vegas,
fittingly, was all about cash--who made it, how much they made
and where it left them on the money list. "I've done more
counting and figuring this week than in all of high school and
college combined," Neal Lancaster said on Sunday as he added
dollar figures in the back of the pressroom, trying to keep
track of his fortunes.
As every missed putt rippled seismically across the money list,
there was a collective hysteria to try to keep track of who was
doing what. Wives called the pressroom. Caddies logged on to
www.pgatour.com for real-time scoring updates. Players sprinted
into the locker room at the turn to see where they stood--and
this was on Wednesday, during the first of the five rounds.
What, exactly, was all the fuss about? First, there were the
priceless exemptions into next year's tournaments granted to the
top 125 money winners of 1997. The top 70 were waived into the
exclusive invitationals like Bay Hill and the Memorial. The top
30 scored starting times at this week's $4 million Tour
Championship, in which last place earns 64 grand, as well as
free passes to next season's Masters and U.S. Open.
Those who were perched on the precipice of these various
benchmarks were known as the Bubble Boys. For those who make
their business address at the bottom of the money ranking,
cracking the top 125 was the difference between "steak and
beans," in the words of Brad Fabel. Those who didn't make it
must now try to survive the six most feared days in golf, the
Dec. 3-8 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament at Grenelefe Resort in
Haines City, Fla. Flunk out of Q school and you'll spend a year
in the bushes trying to sneak into the second-rate Tour events.
No wonder the Bubble Boys from 121st to 138th, separated by
$23,419 heading into Vegas, were conspicuous by their dour
expressions, shaky putting strokes and stiff necks, the result
of looking over their shoulders. "I feel like I've got a giant
target on my back," said Larry Rinker, who was 125th on the list
($171,721) at the start of the week but secured his card with a
David Edwards spent the week answering to the exalted title
Double Bubble Boy, owing to his 148th place on the '97 list
($133,696) and 49th position in alltime earnings ($3,981,944).
Players among the career top 50 can take a one-time-only special
exemption for the following year if they lose their cards, which
is what Edwards was fixing to do until his brilliant
68-66-69-72-66 left him in a tie for second, one stroke back of
winner Bill Glasson, who took home $324,000 and a spot in the
Tour Championship. Edwards's $158,400 check bumped him to 83rd
on the money list, but wasn't he disappointed about not winning?
"That'd be like complaining you only won $10 million in the
lottery instead of $20 million," he said.
Others found it difficult to play with one hand on their throat.
Andrew Magee came into Vegas 29th on the list, with $665,607,
but shot a 74 in the third round to miss the cut by two strokes.
"I choked my brains out," he said. "I was stiff. I was tight. I
was too concerned about all this top 30 nonsense." Nevertheless,
he held on to the 30th spot when No. 31, Billy Andrade, bogeyed
the 89th hole to fall into a tie for 19th and wind up five
dollars short of Magee.
It's a wonder that Andrade didn't have a crackup a la John
Huston, who has been suffering from back spasms and needed a
strong performance to keep his card, as he was 138th in
earnings. Last Saturday Huston stalked off the course after a 78
and kept on walking, tersely announcing his withdrawal. "I
played with him," Lancaster said, "and all he said was, 'I've
had enough of this s---.'" By Sunday afternoon, so had
Lancaster. A good ol' boy from Smithfield, N.C., Lancaster began
the week on terra firma, 121st on the money list, with $175,259.
He was cruising after a 69 and a 66 to open the tournament. Even
a 77 on Friday, a brutally cold and windy day, didn't really
hurt him. He played the fourth round, though, with fellow Bubble
Boys Brett Quigley (135th) and Huston. "Play well, boys, but not
too well," Lancaster said on the 1st tee. Unfortunately he took
his own advice, chopping his way to a 78.
Third from last entering the final round, Lancaster estimated
that he needed a 64 to lock up his card. Instead, he shot 70.
After the round Lancaster held vigil in the pressroom, hogging
the scoring computer to monitor the progress of Quigley, who was
threatening to knock him out of the 125th spot. Quigley, tied
with six players for 25th after starting 70-68-74-70, needed
$23,811 to bounce Lancaster, which was roughly 19th-place money
(depending on ties).
Quigley was two under through six holes when Lancaster first
checked the scores. "Dude, I'm going to be 1-2-6, and we're
talking about pennies here," he said. Thus began a 21/2-hour
mope session during which Lancaster guzzled Cokes, bummed
cigarettes, scarfed down handfuls of candy, chewed his
fingernails, wore out the carpet with his pacing and generally
acted like an expectant father outside the maternity ward. "Nah,
that'd be easier than this," he said.
The thunderheads above Lancaster lifted briefly when Quigley
bogeyed the 8th hole. "I hate to root against Brett," Lancaster
said, not very convincingly, "but we're talking about losing
Quigley, a 28-year-old rookie, had played nine straight weeks to
get within striking distance of the top 125 and seemed to be
running out of gas midway through his round, bogeying the 10th
and 11th holes to fall back to a tie for 28th. Lancaster's grin
could've lit up the Strip, but it disappeared as Quigley birdied
the 13th, 14th and 15th. "That's it--I'm out of here," Lancaster
said. He stayed, of course.
Quigley birdied his fourth straight hole at 16, jumping into a
tie for 15th. After a flurry of calculations, Lancaster found a
glimmer of hope. "All I need is one bogey," he said. He got it
from Quigley on the 17th, where he three-putted from 40 feet. No
more than 10 seconds after Quigley's score was posted, the phone
rang in the back of the pressroom, and someone asked if there
was a Neal Lancaster in the house. "That's my wife," he said,
before purring into the phone, "I think we're O.K." Quigley's
tie for 23rd left him 128th on the list, about $7,000 short of
Lancaster, who was last seen sprinting out of the pressroom
pumping his fist and promising a proper celebration when he got
back to Carolina and his wife, Lou Ann.
Lancaster was also happy because he didn't have to answer to
Andrade's mom. Andrade had been grinding hard in a failed
attempt to make the Ryder Cup team. Exhausted, he slipped to
30th on the money list in the weeks following the PGA. "It
didn't bother me as much as it did my mom," Andrade said. "I
thought she was going to have a coronary." On the eve of the
final round in Vegas, Andrade was still feigning indifference to
the money machinations, but he came clean after losing his spot
in the Tour Championship with a closing 69. "Coming down the
stretch, there was more pressure than trying to win a
tournament," Andrade said. "I'm so glad to have this behind me.
I've been on the bubble for two months."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Las Vegas was a flop for Andrade when he failed to hold his spot in the Tour Championship. [Billy Andrade lying on green]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK On the bubble for the final spot among the top 125, Lancaster monitored returns for 2 1/2 hours. [Neal Lancaster sitting at desk]