CHARLESTON, S.C. – One low round seemingly allowed James Hahn to bypass all the manufactured drama, ever-changing projections and nerve-jangling moments that tend to accompany the Nationwide Tour finale. A few of his colleagues weren’t quite as fortunate Saturday at Daniel Island, turning this Quest for the Card into one muddled mess.
“Look at it here,” Hahn said, smiling wide during another sun-splashed day on the Island. “It’s hard to walk around here without a smile on your face. Very enjoyable.”
Easy to say, of course, after a 5-under 67 vaulted Hahn, currently No. 29 on the money list, into a tie for second at the Nationwide Tour Championship. And perhaps it explained why the 28-year-old was more interested in discussing the volunteers’ Halloween costumes – one guy arrived as Iron Man, with irons dangling off his arms; get it? – than the round that essentially secured his playing privileges on the PGA Tour next season.
Such a jovial mood, on such an important weekend, prompted the question: Do you feel more at ease now, after putting yourself in such a favorable position?
“No, absolutely not,” Hahn shot back. “That’s when you start relaxing too much and people behind you catch up. You just have to go out there and pretend like it’s another day in the office. There are too many small stories inside the big story of the Tour Championship.”
Indeed, the big question Sunday at Daniel Island isn’t so much who will take home the big check – Brendan Steele is five shots ahead – but rather who will finish the day inside the top 25 on the money list, thereby earning a PGA Tour card for 2011. Six of the top seven players on the leaderboard began the week outside the top 25, but not all are projected to finish inside the cut line. And therein lies the intrigue.
No player on Saturday helped his cause more than Colt Knost, the 2007 U.S. Amateur champion, who birdied three of the last six holes to move into joint second. Thirty-sixth on the money list to begin the week, he is unofficially projected to finish in the top 20. For now.
“You try not to think about it,” Knost said, “but you can’t. I slept horrible last night. I was tired today and grumpy. You wake up thinking about it, but it’s part of the deal. Obviously that means I’m playing good, and it means I have a shot going into tomorrow.”
Knost was on the verge of getting lapped after the first few holes Saturday, when Steele, who began the day in a three-way tie for the lead, birdied six of the first seven holes to open up a five-shot advantage. Even then, Steele didn’t feel comfortable. Such is the case when PGA Tour cards are on the line.
“It was fun,” Steele said, “but not as much as you’d think it would be. It’s still a grind no matter how well you’re playing.”
Few played better Saturday than Jim Herman, but that did little to quell his anxiety. “One more day” is how he began his post-round interview, sighing and looking at the electronic leaderboard in the distance. After two rounds of even-par 72, Herman turned in a third-round 67 to move into prime position.
“It’s always there, you’re always thinking about it, but I can only control what I’m doing,” said Herman, who began the week 20th on the money list, “and you really don’t want to leave it in someone else’s hands.”
Scott Gardiner may not have a choice. He squandered an easy birdie chance on the par-5 18th when he chunked a pitch shot into the greenside bunker, drew a plugged lie, blasted over the green and made bogey. Rounds of 68-75-72 now leave him outside the top 25 bubble, and he’ll need a low round Sunday – and a little help – to punch his ticket to the Tour.
“It’s only pressure if you’re not playing well,” he said.
So, how best to prepare for (and eventually deal with) the inevitable Sunday swings in momentum, the surges of adrenaline? Knost plans to plop down on the couch Saturday night, tune into Game 3 of the World Series, and, if thoughts drift to the back nine at the Nationwide Tour Championship and its endless scenarios, try not to hyperventilate. “You try not to think about it,” Knost said, “but it’s impossible.”
And that’s the secret here, no? Managing your emotions and, maybe, thriving off them? Leave it to projected No. 25, Justin Hicks, to lend the best perspective.
“You just can’t let every shot feel like your life is on the line,” he said. “There’s another day, there’s another week, and there’s another year ahead. It’s certainly not life-ending, no matter what happens tomorrow. You just have to have fun with it.”
Until you reach the back nine on Sunday, with a year’s worth of toiling at stake.