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New names have chance at Tour Championship

Only when he looks back does Sean O'Hair realize how far he has come.

At times, it can be staggering.

``Last year, I was getting ready for the second stage of Q-school,'' O'Hair said Wednesday at the season-ending Tour Championship, the PGA Tour's version of an All-Star event for only the top 30 players on the money list.

This year's tournament features a half-dozen players like O'Hair, who essentially were nobodies a year ago and now take their place among the elite at East Lake, with $1.17 million to the winner and $92,000 for last place.

``I've gone from the lowest level in golf to the highest level in one year,'' O'Hair said. ``That's pretty cool.''

He's not alone.

For every Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh, there is someone like Billy Mayfair, a former winner of the Tour Championship whose game fell into disarray. It got so bad last year that Mayfair finished 140th on the money list and had to use a one-time exemption from the career money list to regain his card.

For every Retief Goosen and Davis Love III there is Brandt Jobe, who missed the last eight months of the season last year with a left wrist injury. Jobe started out this season on a major medical extension, meaning he had 20 tournaments to get his game in order.

Olin Browne missed the cut in the Chrysler Championship last year to fall on the wrong side of the bubble, from No. 125 on the money list to another year of begging for sponsors' exemptions.

Lucas Glover was headed back to Q-school for the fourth time at the end season.

The Tour Championship indeed is an All-Star game, but the stars are redefined. It's not who draws the biggest galleries or has the lucrative contracts. It's not former major champions.

This week is for the guys who played the best, even if some of them need an introduction.

O'Hair is becoming a known quantity, and not just for his troubled past with a father who treated him like a commodity, making him run a mile for every bogey and driving him to turn pro at age 16.

He finished second in the Byron Nelson Championship, won the John Deere Classic and comes into East Lake at No. 16 on the money list with nearly $2.3 million. O'Hair, 23, is a lock to win PGA Tour rookie of the year.

And to think of where he was a year ago.

``I had to birdie the last three holes to get into the final stage of Q-school,'' he said. ``If I don't do that, I'm not here. It just goes to show how quickly life can change.''

Browne might be the most unlikely story of all. He is the definition of a journeyman, a 46-year-old who has been grinding away at a game he loves for the last 20 years. Browne had not won since the 1999 Colonial, and spent the last two years outside the top 125 on the money list, a sure sign that his best golf was behind him.

He refused to accept that.

Browne went to Houston swing coach Jim Hardy nearly two years ago and saw steady progress. He finally broke through at the Deutsche Bank Championship with a one-shot victory, and a runner-up finish at the Texas Open. He had never been higher than 45th on the money list, but this year checks in at No. 24.

``Top 30 is something you'd like to do, but I hadn't done anything to feel confidence enough that top 30 was attainable,'' Browne said. ``It's been a lot of fun. This is like a pat on the back for the guys have played great.''

Mayfair played more solidly than great, and his only regret is not having won this year.

Not that he is disappointed in his season, a remarkable turnaround for the former U.S. Amateur champion. Mayfair was so determined to play better than he started his season in Hawaii, his only goal to finish in the top 125. Then came his runner-up finish in the Colonial, fourth place at the Western Open and four other top 10s.

``If you play good, everything takes care of itself,'' he said.

Jobe was thinking the same thing when he sat down for breakfast Wednesday morning at East Lake, and later when he walked through a tunnel beneath the bleachers and onto the practice range. He walked past Goosen. Down the way was Love and Justin Leonard, players who make regular appearances at this tournament.

``I was reflecting about that, where we were when we started the year and where we are now,'' he said. ``I couldn't dream this would happen after the last two years. This is the ultimate bonus.''

It might seem like another Tour Championship for Woods, who has never missed one since he turned pro at age 20 in 1996 and qualified in just seven tournaments. He needs to win to become the first $11 million man in golf.

Phil Mickelson, No. 3 on the money list, decided to stay home this year with his kids.

Nine players are at the Tour Championship for the first time, but they have one thing in common with everyone else.

``Everyone has worked their tails off,'' O'Hair said. ``And that's why they're here.''

November 3, 2005

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