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Tour cards at stake as season nears end

European and U.S. golfers enter the final laps of their seasons over the next few weeks, a time for the top players to preen and count their millions and the also-rans to pray for overdue inspiration.

The sport's number one, Fijian Vijay Singh, is well on his way to earning $10 million in 2004 on the U.S. Tour alone, and all his closest pursuers in the world's top 10 are millionaires many times over.

For them, the closing month of the season is an opportunity to add a little iceing to their already rich cakes, their all-important Tour cards long since secured for another year of considerable money-making.

Indeed, players who reach the European Tour's season-ending Volvo Masters at Valderrama at the end of October can bank on a fat cheque of several thousand pounds simply for turning up in the 60-strong elite field in southern Spain.

This week too, 16 of the world's finest players are gunning for the sport's biggest prize, one million pounds ($1.80 million), which they can earn in just four days of labour on Wentworth's West Course in the World Match Play Championship.

Further down golf's food chain, though, there are dozens who will be playing for far slimmer pickings in tournaments in Mallorca and Madrid at which the entire prize fund of one million euros ($1.24 million) at each does not even cover the Wentworth winner's cheque.

These tournaments, though, can make the difference between a Tour card and the chance to do better in 2005 or relegation into the backwaters of the sport where prize cheques often only just cover travelling and caddie expenses.

In Europe, only the top 115 players in the Order of Merit -- after exemptions for tournament wins of previous years are taken into account -- qualify automatically for next season, a cut which could sideline several big names from the past.

Swede Robert Karlsson, a five-times winner on Tour, lies 116th, and Roger Chapman, who has been on the circuit for 22 uninterrupted years, is four places further down the ladder.

Also very much on the danger list are former European Ryder Cup players Gordon Brand Jnr (126th), David Gilford (134th) and Andrew Coltart (139th).

All have around 140,000 euros ($173,700) or just under in prize money behind them this season which after around 80,000 euros or so is taken away for travelling, accommodation and caddie expenses, leaves little room for many luxuries.

Ernie Els, meanwhile, who has played just 14 European Tour tournaments in 2004, is sitting on a cool 3.5 million euros ($4.34 million) at the top of the year's earnings list.

The gap between the haves and the have nots in the even more lucrative U.S. PGA Tour is yet more pronounced.

Singh has won just under $9.5 million from 26 events, including eight victories.

On the other side of the tracks lies someone like Briton John Morgan who has made $500,000 which was chiefly earned from a second place at the John Deere Classic but has overall only made four cuts from 16 events.

It leaves him needing to make another $30,000 to be sure of regular employment on the Tour next year.

Morgan, 27 in December, who opted against a European Tour career in favour of a pitch at the richer pickings in the U.S., has a good excuse for his struggles.

On a flight to the Reno-Tahoe Open in August he had an epileptic fit and suffered a bad rib injury.

"I've had to change my swing to accommodate the injury," he told Golf Weekly. "It's frustrating because just as I was finding my game ... this happens.

"It's been a bit of a struggle. I'm trying my hardest -- probably a bit too hard to be honest -- and the pressure is building.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm finding it very tough. But I just have to try and get through it.

"I haven't lost sight of why I came here. I came here for the bigger stage, the bigger challenge. I wanted to throw myself in at the deep end and I still think I can do it."

Morgan has three tournaments to turn around his fortunes in a fight for survival on both sides of the Atlantic for the smaller prize fund cheques.

Often, this battle within a battle is more exciting than the tournament itself.

After all, livelihoods are at stake.

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