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Pressure increases to retain Tour exemptions

The name of the game becomes survival as the PGA Tour marches toward its conclusion in just two weeks.

For those players whose livelihoods depend on finishing inside the top 125 on the Tour's money list, the last three events of the season -- the Disney Golf Classic, Buick Challenge and Southern Farm Bureau Classic (the heavyweights are playing the same week in the Tour Championship) -- acquire an importance they would not normally have.

It's a simple task before these players: Make cuts, make money. The ones who finish No. 125 or better can take some time off over the winter, work on their games and prepare for next season. For those who don't finish inside that magic money line, it's back to Qualifying School if they don't have some other exemption. And for some of those who fail to make enough money, it might be the end of their careers on Tour.

So as Tiger Woods gets ready for a home game this week in the Disney against the likes of David Duval, Davis Love III, Charles Howell III and Rich Beem, the guys stuck around the 125 mark are geared up for a battle of their own.

Of course, a win by a player such as Craig Barlow, who is No. 125 in money earnings with $486,288, would suddenly eliminate his exemption problems, at least for the next two years. Barlow, he of the very deliberate backswing, has figured prominently in several tournaments this season, most prominently at The International, when he held the third-round lead only to fizzle into a seventh-place finish as Steve Lowery and Beem provided the drama on Sunday afternoon.

Barlow also has a tie for third in the Air Canada and another seventh place tie in the recent Tampa Bay Classic. Unfortunately, he has made only eight cuts in 19 tournaments this year. One more good finish would cement his spot on Tour for 2003.

It's expected that earnings a bit over $500,000 will have a player inside the top 125 when the season ends, so Barlow is close, but so are any number of other players. From spots No. 124 (Kaname Yokoo) to No. 134 (Paul Goydos) is a difference of $83,128, about a 10th-place finish in the average Tour event.

Last season Woody Austin was No. 125 with $406,352. Austin, who won the Buick Open back in 1995, is stuck at 151st in money and needs to kick his game in gear to retain his card.

Every player from No. 120 to No. 134 on the money list is in the field this week with the exception of Goydos, who is an alternate, and No. 123 Craig Stadler, who will head to the Senior Tour when he turns 50 next June 2.

Among those are No. 126 Tim Clark, the former North Carolina State University golfer who led the Order of Merit this year in his native South Africa; No. 128 Carlos Franco, whose exemption for winning in New Orleans in 2000 runs out at the end of 2002; and No. 132 Kenneth Staton, a Q- School graduate in 2001 who has played in a whopping 33 tournaments this year and has earned $444,067.

Among those farther back who need to finish in the top 125 are Bob May, who lost to Woods in a memorable PGA Championship playoff in 2000, at No. 141 and Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez at No. 154.

Among those who have no chance of avoiding Q-School except for a win are Gary Nicklaus, who has earned only $36,223 in 25 tournaments, and Eduardo Herrera, who became the first Colombian player to earn his card when he did so at Q-School last year. Herrera is No. 196, Nicklaus No. 219. Herrera is in the Disney field, while Nicklaus is an alternate.

Already one alternate, Boo Weekley, has gained a spot in the Disney when Pat Perez, who is battling Australia's Peter Lonard for rookie of the year honors, withdrew. Weekley, a graduate of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College who likes to wear sneakers and rain pants each week, is No. 198 and knows what he has to do to keep his card.

So while the winner of the Disney probably won't be one of the players struggling to keep his card, keep an eye on what happens with these guys on the bubble. For them, a top-10 finish is almost as good as a victory. The pressure only gets greater next week.

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