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Intolerable Cruelty At The Wyndham

Everybody was playing for something -- in some cases their livelihoods -- in the final event of the 2013-14 PGA Tour regular season

August 2014

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- So you want proof that golf is mean. . .

* * *

Nicholas Thompson, fresh off a final-round 69 that moved him to even par for the Wyndham Championship, already had a sense that Robert Allenby was the man to catch if he wanted to make the FedEx Cup playoffs. Outside the scoring trailer at Sedgefield Country Club, in the oppressive humidity of Carolina at noon, he sat down beside Tom Alter and stared at the two computers resting on a black tablecloth. He knew his position was tenuous -- he entered the week ranked 123rd in the FedEx Cup points standings, good enough to make the first playoff event at the Barclays, but a mediocre showing here had relegated him to the bubble -- and at the start of Sunday's action, he was one of two golfers who had played himself out of the projected top 125. The other was Allenby, and though Thompson finished early on Sunday, with hours of drama yet to unfold, he assessed the Aussie as his critical target.

In fact, Allenby would arguably enjoy the most interesting day of any golfer in the field, bouncing above and below the cut line with seismographic unpredictability, his FedEx Cup fate like a roulette ball careening dizzily past red, and black, and red, and black, and on and on for the eight hours it took the event to finish. It was fascinating, especially when you remembered that Allenby had missed the cut on Friday and now sat somewhere private where, probably, a trusted friend hovered nearby with a stiff drink and a sack of smelling salts.

"What I want you to tell me," said Thompson, his irritation just beginning to show, "is where I have to finish to catch Allenby."

Alter, the VP of Communications for the PGA Tour and the man who agreed to let me shadow him on the harshest day of golf's calendar, soon arrived at the answer: 68th place.

(You've probably guessed this already, but it's worth pointing out that Alter is in a very delicate and unenviable position on a day like Sunday. Any fool can deliver good news, but it takes a practiced hand to convey misery and heartbreak. Luckily, the tour chose well -- Alter has a deft touch. He never dodges the truth or gets caught up in needless preamble, and he's an expert at offering a spark of hope when applicable, or speaking with a gentle finality when not. It's a terrific bedside manner, and if I ever contract a mysterious disease that turns out to be leprosy, I'd pay up to $1,000 for Alter to read the diagnosis.)

Thompson, armed with the new information, peered at the computer. Behind him, leaning over a blue Wyndham barrier and frantically waving a baseball hat, a raving little autograph hound called out to his playing partner.

"Mr. Malinari!" he screamed, at Peter Malnati. The same kid would later refer to Jeff Overton as "Everton" and address Brooks Koepka with what sounded like a bastardized version of Kansas' state capital: "Kopeka." And he wasn't even the most notable of the urchins; down the line 10 feet, a boy wearing a "Got Jesus?" t-shirt asked every player, for reasons that remain unclear to me, to sign his white coffee mug. But if Thompson was fazed by the circus, he didn't show it.

"Am I back to T-69 now?" he asked, finding his name on the computer. But the hope faded almost as fast as it appeared -- a case of mistaken identity. "Oh, that's Michael Thompson. Fuck."

When he located his actual name farther down at T-73, he pronounced himself dead and told us he was going home. Lucky for Thompson, he had a nice safety net -- his position on the money list was secure, and he'd retain his card in 2015 since the tour offers amnesty to the top 125 on money and FedEx lists alike. But safety nets and silver linings were in short supply Sunday -- everywhere you looked, suffering and devastation.

* * *

Try this dilemma: You have a 48-foot putt on the 18th green of a golf tournament. If you make it, you'll enter a playoff and have a chance to win your first PGA Tour event since 2010. "Easy," you might say, "take a run at it." But there's a catch -- if you three-putt, you lose your tour card and have to take your chances at the Web.com Tour finals, where you'll be battling more than 130 hungry, desperate golfers for 25 spots. So . . . do you take the big risk?

If you're Heath Slocum, the answer is yes. You go for the win. And, in this case, you run the putt six feet past, miss the comebacker and walk around the scoring tent in a wide-eyed daze, trying to explain your inexplicable trauma to a half dozen television cameras while you fall deeper into shock.

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