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Focus on bubble players at Chrysler

Pat Bates sat on his golf bag with an empty stare, eating a bag of peanuts before going to work on his game Wednesday.

In front of him was a row of players on the practice range at Innisbrook -- Robert Damron, Glen Hnatiuk, Carl Paulson, Mathew Goggin -- all of them grinding away as if the Masters were about to be played.

It had the atmosphere of a funeral. To some of them, it feels like one.

This is their last chance to keep their jobs.

The Chrysler Championship, which starts Thursday on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, is the 45th week of the PGA Tour and the final full-field event of the season.

"I did really well at Augusta three years in a row, and all of a sudden, here I am fighting for my card," said Per-Ulrik Johansson of Sweden, a former Ryder Cup player who is 125th on the money list.

"It wasn't my plan," he said. "But here I am, and I have to deal with it."

Johansson and more than two dozen other players need a strong performance this week to move into the top 125 and have full, exempt status for next year.

Otherwise, it's back to Q-school or they are saddled with conditional status, meaning they get the leftovers -- the weaker tournaments that top players avoid, which usually amounts to about 20 starts.

Aaron Barber had one of the most amazing weeks of his career at the Colonial, when he played the first two rounds with Annika Sorenstam. But as the season comes to a conclusion, he is No. 140 on the money list and needs to finish in the top 15 at the Chrysler Championship to keep his card.

He was in a similar position a few years ago on the Canadian Tour, but made a birdie on the last hole of the last tournament and kept his card by about $20.

"That wasn't quite as big a deal as this," Barber said. "This is my 32nd tournament. In a perfect world, I wouldn't play that many. But as a rookie, you don't know the courses, you know what taking a week off is.

"Looking back, I wish I had paced myself," he said. "Hopefully, I'll get another chance."

Each shot could be the difference between a PGA Tour card and a trip to Q-school. One player moving up the leaderboard means another player is falling behind. Every dollar counts.

It's a good week to be a mathematician.

Rocco Mediate tried to give the bubble boys reason for optimism.

"I would look at it this way," Mediate said. "If you are 125th or 126th or whatever, you obviously haven't played really well this year yet. So, I feel like I would be due for something good.

"I don't ever want to be in that position."

Mediate is on his own bubble.

While the bottom end of the food chain is struggling to keep their cards, Mediate is No. 30 on the money list and trying to protect his position so he can play next week in the $6 million Tour Championship.

All but two players from No. 26 (Retief Goosen) to No. 51 (Tim Clark) on the money list are playing in the Chrysler Championship.

Fred Couples (No. 32), who was only about $12,000 behind Mediate, withdraw Wednesday after his back went out during the pro-am.

Mediate had no reason to believe he could qualify for the Tour Championship until a recent surge in his play.

He was second in Boston, tied for fifth in Pennsylvania and tied for ninth last week in the Funai Classic at Disney. In between, he withdrew twice because of back problems. He feels much better now.

"In September, I was 60th or 70th," he said. "So to have this opportunity is good. I just need to take advantage of it. I'm beat up a little bit, but I'm ready to go."

John Huston is also injured (neck), but he can't afford to miss the final tournament of the year. Huston is 40th on the money list, and Augusta National invites the top 40 players to the Masters.

Vijay Singh has no such worries, although this week means plenty to him.

The 40-year-old Fijian is coming off a four-stroke victory last week in Disney, which gave him a $250,094 lead over Tiger Woods in the money list.

A victory this week would clinch the money title for Singh.

Still, most of the focus is on the players to whom no one has paid any attention all year, for no other reason than they haven't played well.

Jeff Brehaut knows what they're going through.

Three times he failed to finish in the top 125. This year, he comes to Innisbrook assured of keeping his card for the first time, at No. 99 on the money list thanks to a tie for fifth two weeks ago in Greensboro.

"If they're not talking about it, they're thinking about it," he said of the guys on the bubble. "It comes down to playing good golf. What everyone is trying to do is have the one week that gets them over the top, so they can be in the spot I am now."

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