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Up in the air, nearly down in the dumps

Players on the bubble sweat it out as they try to return to the PGA Tour.

Published November 2, 2003

PALM HARBOR - Mark Wilson's luggage sits wide open. He figures he'll be packing for a trip to Orlando come December. Apropos, considering he's been on an E-ticket ride lately.

Wilson, a rookie on the PGA Tour, shot 5-under 76 Saturday and is among the players at the Chrysler Championship looking ahead and behind each other, trying not to calculate how much money they might win in a tournament and burying memories of the way it was like before.

Before was Qualifying School, where PGA Tour cards are won and dreams are dashed. Before was hotels without pools and room service, meals where the menu specials are Grand Slams, Extra Values and "all you can eat."

Before is where no one who has been there wants to go again.

On the PGA Tour "you get treated so well," Wilson said, "you play such good golf courses every week. ... And the money - you don't have to worry about living expenses and travel expenses; they're just kind of taken care of."

Only the top 125 money winners each year earn the privilege of a trip to Pebble Beach, Doral and Innisbrook. For No. 126 and everyone else on down who doesn't have one of the dozens of exemptions from qualifying, it's back to class.

"What makes this tough is not being able to plan what I'm going to do in the offseason," Wilson said of being on the bubble. "I want to have a little vacation to recharge, then get back to it. But it looks like I'll be going back to Q-school."

And if he doesn't retain his PGA Tour card he can look forward to next year's Fort Smith, Chattanooga, Omaha and Gila River Golf classics on the minor-league Nationwide Tour. Or stops on the Hooters Tour, Japan Tour and Australasian Tour.

"It'd be tough going back to a life like that because you know what you're missing out here," said Wilson, who came into the Chrysler 131st on the list of PGA Tour money winners this year but close enough to overtake as many as eight players.

There's Esteban Toledo, who missed the cut, as did Per-Ulrick Johansson, Dicky Pride and Spike McRoy. And Chris Smith, who pulled out with an elbow injury, and Jose Maria Olazabel, playing in Spain. Pat Bates is 124th and a relative lock to move up.

Bates said that for the most part he resists it the constant temptation to follow how the competition is doing.

"I knew coming in (Saturday) that a lot of guys missed the cut, so I'm looking pretty good," he said. "I don't play leaderboard. I can't control what they do. I don't see Tiger Woods and Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson checking out the boards, so I'm not that kind of player. I want to model myself after the guys who think positive."

Wilson has a harder time thinking that way. His problem is that Glen Hnatiuk is 130th and Olin Browne 132nd, sandwiching him. They're tied for 38th going into today's final round while Wilson is tied for 68th and, based on their current positions, is projected to make about half of what Hnatiuk and Browne will earn.

It's all supposition, but if the Chrysler plays out the way the field looks today, Hnatiuk will wind up 124th, Toledo will slip to 125th, Browne will fall about $200 short of him, and Wilson ... well, he has to play like a tiger today.

Bates barely survived the cut last year, his first on the PGA Tour since 1995. He started hot but a virus laid him low and he sank to 123rd at the end. He's one rung closer to the bottom today.

"God builds character in you in this kind of situation," said Bates, who had trouble reading the wind, missed half a dozen greens and had seven bogeys.

"I birdied the first three holes (going out) and the first two (coming back) and I was off to the races. But that's golf. I guess the best way to look at it is that I'm glad it didn't happen (Friday)."

[Last modified November 2, 2003, 07:26:04]

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