Thin line between PGA Tour survival and rarified air
There was Carl Pettersson, a steady pro coming off a win at the Canadian Open, complete with a third-round 60 that shot him from the bottom of those who made the cut to the top.
Before that, there was Johnson Wagner, who heard his place in the tour standings and joked, "How am I in the media room then?"
Actually, Wagner was an easy pick, being an alumnus of nearby Virginia Tech. He'll have pockets of Chicago maroon and burnt orange cheering him around the 7,031-yard Old White Course today, Friday and perhaps beyond.
Really, he needs to play "beyond." He needs to make the cut this weekend and win substantial money and FedExCup points.
He has won, so he knows what that is like. He won two Nationwide Tour events in 2006 and captured the PGA's Houston Open in April 2008, raking in most of the $1.43 million he earned that year.
He was 73rd on the money list, but making the top 125 was a secondary worry - with the victory, he had his full exemption for 2009 and 2010 in his bag, right there with his driver and putter.
That meant, one would think, that he could breathe a sigh of relief and concentrate on raising his game to an elite level. On the ultra-competitive PGA Tour, it doesn't always work that way.
Wagner plummeted to 153rd in the 2009 list, earning $434,571. He's not much better this year, with his $375,752 putting him at 148th. His FedExCup ranking is 161st, 36 spots from the magic number of 125.
That number is magic for two reasons. One, you need to reach that level to make the FedExCup playoffs and play for up to four weeks in late August and September. Doing so can make it easier for Wagner to reach the top 125 on the money list, which ensures full tour privileges for 2011.
Miss the playoffs and Wagner faces a critical stretch in the Fall Series, five tournaments with a purse lower than players are chasing at The Greenbrier.
The grind continues, and Wagner is kicking himself a bit for making it harder. He has made just 12 of 20 cuts this season and has finished above 39th just twice.
"It's tough. Really, truthfully, you don't have to play that well to finish in the top 125," he said. "I'm not embarrassed at all, but I'm very disappointed in myself that I've been where I've been the last couple of years.
"I feel like I should be a top-70 guy on the money list every year for the next 20 years, and I just haven't been. I've worked hard on my game, and I think I'm better now than I was. It's just kind waiting for that to happen, but it's hard. It's a grind. It's a mental grind thinking about it."
He's not alone. Seventy-six players, plus several alternates on standby, are below the magic line in the FedExCup. One of the 76 is Mark Hensby, an alternate who landed a Greenbrier Classic berth Wednesday when top-30 player Nick Watney withdrew for personal reasons.
A win or even a top-10 finish this week can really perk up your season.
Let's put it this way: The first prize of $1.08 million would rank 53rd on the money list all by itself. The 500 FedExCup points would guarantee a playoff berth with room to spare, based on the 2009 standings. It took at least 354 points to make the playoffs last season.
Pettersson has no such concerns, and wouldn't really have them even if he hadn't pulled down the $918,000 winner's check in Canada. Even if he missed the cut, he would have been 68th on the money list - right between Greenbrier entrants Blake Adams and Kenny Perry. Based on the 2009 numbers, his spot in the top 125 was secure.
The native of Sweden via North Carolina State has been solid throughout his PGA career, making 160 of 229 cuts. But he is not immune to the ups and downs of pro life, falling to 136th on the 2009 money list. His troubles seemed to coincide with weight loss.
Intentional, successful weight loss. No joke. After a successful 2008, he wanted to lose some weight, get fit and improve his game that way. Thirty pounds lighter ...
"I ended up getting worse," he said. "I kind of lost my swing and didn't play very well at all last year and had no game whatsoever, really.
"As you know, golf, if the swing is off by half an inch, it's a big deal. So I decided to gain the weight back. [He laughs] That wasn't very hard, but I lost a lot of confidence."
That confidence is back. And so is a top-25 spot on the money list and No. 16 spot in the FedExCup standings.
You probably know the story by now - Pettersson found out he made the Canadian cut at 1-under, then proceeded to rip the St. George's course in Toronto with a 10-under-par 60. By the time he was done Sunday, he needed only to bogey the 18th to win, which he did.
He played his last 32 holes in 14-under after going even in the first 40. Somebody will do something similar this week, on a softer course that could yield a 24-under winner.
Could Pettersson do it? Tour repeats are much to ask if you're not named Tiger.
"It's a difficult week to play after a win," he said. "Sometimes the game is still there, and sometimes it totally left you. I don't know what's going to happen this week."
Neither does Wagner, who is looking to regain the glory he experienced one spring weekend two years ago.
"You know, I think that was part of my problem last year, that I thought it was easy. I thought it was, oh, I'll just win an event every year. It's easy," he said. "I learned the hard way that's not right."
I figure Wagner, and a lot of other pros, have learned the margin between fighting for your tour life and knocking on the doors of the golfing elite.
As we'll see starting today, it is rather narrow.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or dougsm...@wvgazette.com.