LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Five things you need to know before the start of the Children’s Miracle Network Classic:
1.) Money talks: Webb Simpson and Luke Donald, the two protagonists in the yearlong race for the PGA Tour money title, met with the news media Wednesday. No surprise, they will play together the first two rounds at Disney. It’s compelling TV during a supposedly slow time in golf. And aside from the stomach-churning battle to stay in the top 125, it’s also one of the main subplots to the final full-field event of the season.
“Everyone knows why I’m here,” Donald said, smiling.
At the start of the year, he had no intention of trying to become the first player to win the money title on both the PGA and European tours: “(It was) just a thought in my mind that would be a pretty cool accomplishment to pull off,” he said. Obviously that goal became more attainable after winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February. In the following months, he’s authored a remarkably consistent season, with two runners-up, a pair of third-place finishes, 13 top 10s – all while playing on both sides of the pond (he also was a three-time winner this season on the European Tour).
Though Donald holds a comfortable lead in Europe – he’s €1,312,823 ahead of Rory McIlroy – he trails Simpson by $363,029 on the Tour money list. He entered the Disney event, his sixth tournament in seven weeks, just to give himself a chance at the Arnold Palmer Award. But his approach this week is, essentially, title-or-bust: only a two-way tie for second or better will suffice.
In that regard, he said, “It feels a bit like the FedEx Cup and Tour Championship.”
No matter what happens this week, Donald hopes his peers consider more than just the money title when submitting their vote for Player of the Year. Donald, after all, leads the Tour in scoring average (68.86). He has the most top 10s (13). And, perhaps most important, he is No. 1 in the world, claiming that spot in May and only strengthening his position since.
But Simpson, in his third full season on Tour, has been one of the breakout stars of 2011. Eleven top 10s in 25 starts. Two victories, including a playoff event (Deutsche Bank). FedEx Cup runner-up. And he’s earned more than $6.2 million this season.
“To have a five-year exemption, five-year job security on the Tour is priceless, just given the nature of the game,” Simpson said. “Talking to my wife (Dowd on Tuesday), we just said, ‘If we don’t win the money title or Player of the Year, in no way will we be disappointed.’
“We obviously want to do those things, but this year has been a success 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.”
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2.) Holding on: Bobby Gates and James Driscoll are Nos. 124 and 125, respectively, on the Tour money list. How convenient: They’ll also be paired together for the first two rounds at Disney.
“I think they have kind of a twisted (sense of) irony in them,” Gates said Tuesday.
He and Driscoll will have played all four Fall Series events in an attempt to move up the money list. Gates, a 25-year-old Tour rookie, has made the cut in only 10 of 28 events this season. Driscoll, 31, has made only two cuts since August.
A 2010 Nationwide Tour graduate, Gates didn’t have to wait until the final week to learn his fate. He won in New Zealand and finished 16th on the money list.
“I know my game is there,” he said. “I’ve been saving ’em all for this week, so hopefully they fall in.”
The defending champion here knows the feeling. The past few years, Robert Garrigus has played the Fall Series finale needing a high finish to keep his card. In 2009, he missed the cut after rounds of 74-74, necessitating a trip to Q-School. Last year, after entering the week No. 122 in earnings, he won courtesy of a sterling final round.
Said Garrigus: “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.”
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3.) Speaking of Garrigus…: His victory here last year remains one of the most redemptive performances on Tour. Atoning for his colossal collapse earlier in the year in Memphis, Garrigus overcame a five-shot deficit and shot a final-round 64 to win by three. Even that adversity paled to his dark past, during which he battled drug and alcohol addiction.
A year later, he is a Tour winner, he is a multimillionaire, and for the first time in years, he is unconcerned with holding onto a spot in the top 125.
“It’s special,” Garrigus said of returning to defend his title. “I’ve never seen my face on anything before. It’s kind of ugly, but it’s kind of neat to have your face on the room keys and a couple of billboards.”
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4.) Kodak moment: Bill Lunde took a lot of the drama out of the $1 million Kodak Challenge last month in Vegas. An eagle on the 16th hole at TPC Summerlin gave him a two-shot lead over Cameron Tringale in the competition that rewards the player with the best cumulative score on 18 out of 30 predetermined holes from various Tour events.
Tringale will need an eagle this week on the par-4 17th hole on the Magnolia Course. Unfortunately for him, since 1998 only two players have recorded eagles on that hole – Charles Warren (2009) and Lanny Wadkins (’98).
“It’s been fun,” said Lunde, 35, “but I will be glad when it’s over.”
Last year, rookie Troy Merritt won the $1 million bonus in a playoff over Rickie Fowler and Aaron Baddeley. On the first extra hole, Merritt hit a pitching wedge to 18 inches, tapped in for birdie, then promised to trade in his wife’s Toyota Corolla for a Lexus SUV.
Asked what he would do with his newfound cash, Lunde said: “I thought about buying anything from a new house to maybe like a sports car or something. It’s kind of like nothing I really need or anything. It’s just purely out of a want-and-greed kind of thing.
“The house we live in now, we love our house, but if you run full speed out the back door, you won’t be able to stop in time before you hit the wall.”
Lunde is No. 126 on the Tour money list this season but needn’t worry: He is exempt for next season by virtue of his victory at the 2010 Turning Stone Championship.
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5.) Ballers: Some current and former athletes are coming to the Happiest Place on Earth to play the Children’s Miracle Network Classic.
Among the notables who will compete in the pro-am portion of the event:
- Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young tees off at 7:50 a.m. EDT (Palm) with Jeff Maggert and Shaun Micheel
- Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price tees off at 8:10 a.m. (Palm) with Billy Mayfair and Tom Pernice Jr.
- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers tees off at 8:20 a.m. (Palm) with Arjun Atwal and Nathan Green
- Former Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning tees off at noon (Palm) with Roland Thatcher and Hunter Haas
- Tampa Bay Rays outfielders Johnny Damon and B.J. Upton tee off at 12:40 p.m. (Palm) with D.A. Points and Vaughn Taylor
- Tampa Bay Rays pitcher James Shields tees off at 8 a.m. (Magnolia) with Chris DiMarco and Billy Horschel
- Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks tees off at 8:50 a.m. (Magnolia) with Steven Bowditch and Martin Piller
- Chicago Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena tees off at 12:10 p.m. (Magnolia) with Kevin Chappell and Colt Knost
- San Francisco Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand tees off at 12:20 p.m. (Magnolia) with Robert Garrigus and Stephen Ames
- Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis tees off at 12:40 p.m. (Magnolia) with Justin Leonard and Joe Ogilvie
- Former Atlanta Braves first baseman Fred McGriff tees off at 1 p.m. (Magnolia) with Chris Baryla and Alex Rocha