November 5, 2007

Last Call in Orlando

Stephen Ames puts a wrap on the Fall Series with a victory at the Children's Miracle Network Classic

Ames warmed up for a cold Canadian winter with a one-shot victory thanks to a gritty final nine.

Ames warmed up for a cold Canadian winter with a one-shot victory thanks to a gritty final nine.

Stephen Ames, who has retooled his golf swing to take a load off his aching back, out-dueled Tim Clark and Scott Verplank to win the Children's Miracle Network Classic presented by Wal-Mart with a 17-under 271 on Walt Disney Resort's Palm and Magnolia courses. It is hard to imagine a threesome where Ames, 151st on the tour in driving distance, is the power player but there you have it. Yada, yada, yada.

Now, back to the numbers. In a year that began and ended without the World's No. 1 anywhere in sight and included tens of thousands of golf shots from Hawaii to Boston and back, a player's fate never truly comes down to one round of golf. But when it's the last round of the year, it can sure feel that way. It did for Kevin Stadler, lookalike son of Craig and the only player outside the top 125 coming into the Magic Kingdom who played his way into fully exempt status, going from 127th to 124th, and bumping Ted Purdy in the process.

"I'm more nervous now than I was on the golf course," Stadler said just outside the scoring trailer after his closing 71, watching and waiting for his wheel of fortune finally to stop spinning.

The only player who pushed his way into the top 30 was Heath Slocum, and that didn't really matter because he was already in the '08 Masters after qualifying for the Tour Championship. Jeff Gove and Robert Gamez managed to squeeze inside the top 150, which gets them to the final stage of Q school, which in turn means they have a home next year no matter what. And Vaughn Taylor remains the last automatic invite to the invitationals, staying right where he began the week, at No. 70. The to-ing and fro-ing turned out to be mostly smoke and mirrors, sweat and fears. In the end, not much changed.

Ames, who went into the last round tied with Verplank at 13 under, only came to Orlando to escape the impending cold of Calgary, Alberta, where the Trinidadian/Tobagian makes his home, and to continue working with his instructor, Sean Foley. Having altered his swing plane to save his back, Ames didn't want to just hit balls off rubber mats for four months.

At one point or another Sunday afternoon, it seemed like just about everyone had a chance to win, including guys named Tag Ridings and Bryce Molder. That particular pair turned out to be Disney characters, however, and, in both cases, a good day wasn't good enough to salvage a lousy year. The best it could do was send them back to Q school with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Sunday Justin Leonard had a legitimate shot at Augusta's A-list. Having begun his season with six consecutive missed cuts, he clawed his way back to respectability with a win at the Valero Texas Open and could have gotten a trip down Magnolia Lane with a big finish. Instead, he shot one over par on the incoming nine to end up 33rd on the money list.

Clark, on the mend from nerve problems in his neck, seemed an afterthought until he birdied five of six holes from the ninth through the 14th. One more at the 16th got him a share of the lead, but Ames answered with a birdie of his own from inside 10 feet on the par-3 15th, his third birdie in a row. The man with the toothy grin and hearty laugh finished it off with three hard-earned pars on the toughened-up Magnolia Course, getting up and down at the 18th from the left greenside bunker with a 64-foot explosion. Verplank, who had been tied with Ames on the 14th, bogeyed two of the last three to end up three back.

Now that it's history, the seven-event Fall Series can be looked at in a couple of ways. In the first, out of sight, out of mind, off the networks and attended largely by friends and family, players scramble like suckling pigs for a spot on the underbelly of the cash sow that is the PGA Tour in an attempt to afford the G.I. Joe with the Kung-fu grip for the kids at Christmas. In the second, the utility infielders of golf, the long snappers, the bullpen catchers, stagger awkwardly to the end, hoping to earn nothing more than the privilege of doing it all over again next year on the off chance they might stumble onto one of those magical weeks and get their names engraved on something worth engraving, something that doesn't change its name every business cycle.

Kevin Stadler

Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

If you want to know the true meaning of the last tournament of the year, look no further than Craig Perks, the Aussie who chipped in twice in the final three holes to win the '02 Players Championship, who never made a cut in all of 2007 and decided to call it a career. Jack and Arnold get to wave goodbye from the Swilcan Bridge. Perks gets Fort Wilderness.

It's not as cut and dried for most. The majority of the journeymen just fade away. They are the old, the infirm, the just plain slow of foot left behind by the thundering herd. It is a bit too glib to repeat over and over that they're playing for their jobs. Of course they are. But the truth is also that the dream predates the check. This is where Ames, Woody Austin and Rory Sabbatini have it right. Can all these guys beat Tiger Woods for a hole? Sure. Can they beat him for a day? Sometimes. Can they beat him for an entire week? In their dreams.

Top 30 to Augusta. Top 70 to the invitationals. Top 125 get to come back and do it all over again in January. They weren't queuing up on the Palm and Magnolia courses to be Tiger Woods. They were lined up for a chance to be Ben Curtis.

The number-crunching started right out of the blocks. J.P. Hayes, protecting his position at 123rd on the money list, led after the first round with a seven-under 65 on the Magnolia. One shot back was Cameron Beckman, who began the Fall Series at 147th and free-climbed all the way up to 118th, where he could breathe again. Also at 66 were Ryuji Imada (67th and guarding the 70) and Verplank, the 24th-ranked player in the world, brow-beaten into coming to Orlando by his children.

"I got bullied into being here by a 12-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 3-year-old," he said. Verplank, the only unbeaten and untied member of the victorious U.S. Presidents Cup team, took the second-round lead with a bogey-free, 12-under 132. A shot behind were Ridings, whose money-list ambitions could only truly be helped by a victory, Ames (who at one point birdied seven straight holes on the Palm Course) and Ryan Armour, Mr. 147. Significant cut misses, other than Perks', belonged to Purdy at 125, Harrison Frazar, Mr. 130, and John Merrick, Mr. 133.

Brett Wetterich and Ames both held back-nine leads on a gusty Saturday. Ames three-putted twice in the last three holes while Wetterich drove it into the hazard on the left of the 18th fairway, accidentally moved a twig in the hazard while waggling his club for a two-shot penalty, added another penalty shot when he dropped out of the hazard and wound up with a triple-bogey 7. That left him three shots behind Verplank and Ames.

So was this the money-list version of coals to Newcastle, just the rich getting richer? Perhaps. But, to paraphrase Mike Ditka, who was discussing whether or not the New England Patriots ran up the score in a recent game: There are times for men to show compassion, but from 1:00 to 6:00 on a Sunday afternoon isn't one of them.

To some degree, the tour has been hoisted on its own petard. With the FedEx Cup season more or less successfully culminating at the Tour Championship, the Fall Series is a true orphan. Autumn golf has always been, shall we say, low-key. Now that's codified.

Despite having a handful of interesting winners -- Leonard, Mike Weir, Chad Campbell, Ames -- there is the sense the Insignificant Seven should represent more than mere bean-counting. A free ride on the monorail doesn't seem to be it.