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Classic is crucial to some

PGA Tour exemptions and spots in the Masters and Tour Championship could be at stake.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


Tiger Woods won't be here, and neither will David Duval, Phil Mickelson or Davis Love III. They will be playing in the Presidents Cup, a team competition pitting the United States against an international squad led by such players as Ernie Els and Nick Price.

That might be disappointing to golf fans planning to attend the Tampa Bay Classic this week at the Westin Innisbrook Resort.

But it is probably welcome news to a couple dozen players who are fighting for their livelihood in the $2.4-million tournament.

The Tampa Bay Classic is one of just four official events remaining on the 2000 PGA Tour schedule. And for those players hovering around the top 125 on the money list, this could prove to be a huge week.

Only the top 125 money winners are fully exempt for the 2001 season. Those who finish below that number are forced to return to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament or play a limited schedule.

Tom Byrum, who is playing in the Tampa Bay Classic, entered the weekend at the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas in the 125th spot with $330,583, although he was in position to earn a big check. He knows he can't sit on 125.

"It's something I always seem to have to deal with," Byrum said. "Usually, this is when I play my best golf. It doesn't seem like I can have a hot streak and put myself in a better position for the fall."

Byrum is scheduled to play all the remaining events for which he is eligible.

This also promises to be a big week for players such as Kevin Wentworth (126th), Brandt Jobe (127th), Rick Fehr (129th), Shaun Micheel (130th), Gabriel Hjerstedt (131st), Sean Murphy (132nd) and Barry Cheesman (135th). It probably will take about $350,000 in earnings to secure a spot in the top 125.

With a $2.4-million purse, a top-10 finish in the Tampa Bay Classic would be worth more than $60,000 -- enough to get into the top 125, or at least close.

The tournament will be important for other players with aspirations. Any player who finishes among the top 40 money winners earns an invitation to next spring's Masters. And the Tampa Bay Classic is one of just two tournaments before the Tour Championship, which invites only the top 30 money winners.

Bob May, the runner-up to Woods at the PGA Championship in August, came into the weekend 31st on the money list with $1,271,742, less than $20,000 behind Rocco Mediate. Rory Sabbatini is 33rd and Safety Harbor's John Huston is 35th. A big week here could mean playing in the Tour Championship for its lucrative $5-million purse.

Other players need a high finish the next two weeks to help their cause, such as Valrico's Michael Bradley, who is 170th on the money list with $160,615. Casey Martin is 178th ($123,624). Palm Harbor's Bob Heintz is 186th ($105,212).

A more immediate concern for those players is to get within the top 150 money winners. It won't earn a tour card for next year, but it will save them some grief.

Players who finish outside of the top 150 must go through the second stage of PGA Tour qualifying. Those in the top 150 are exempt into the final.

"It also gives you back-of-the-bus conditional status for the big tour next year," said Heintz, a rookie on the PGA Tour this season who earned his spot by finishing fifth on the 1999 Buy.com Tour money list. "You might get into some of the less popular events, where if you had a big week you'd jump right back into the situation I'm in this year. That's probably a more attainable goal and is certainly in the back of my mind."

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