Disney chock full of anxious moments

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Spectators soaked up the sun in the bleachers surrounding the 18th green, oblivious to the angst and elation occurring just a few yards away.

To them, these were some of the anonymous faces that dot the PGA Tour, guys finishing their last hole of their last tournament of the year, no chance of winning the Children's Miracle Network Classic, the filler until the day's real tournament drama was to arrive a few hours later.

So perhaps it seemed a bit strange when Nicholas Thompson was stalking a 50-foot par putt as if it were to win the tournament.

Or when he was then pacing back and forth around the 9-footer he had left himself for bogey.

Or when he pumped his fist like Tiger at Torrey Pines after holing the putt to shoot a final-round 66.

"I knew that if I missed that, I didn't have a chance and I was going to [Q-school] finals," Thompson said. "I knew making that at least gave me a chance. So we're going to sit back and watch."

That, of course, was the story within the story Sunday at Disney's Magnolia course, where Stephen Ames won in a playoff over George McNeill and Justin Leonard. Those extra holes could not match the do-or-die nature of what the final outcome meant to a handful of players who were fighting to finish among the top 125.

That is golf's magic number, and while it is not as dire as having a full-time job or not, the advantages to being on the right side of that number are numerous.

For those who finish among the top 125 -- and do not have other full-status exemptions given for winning tournaments on the PGA Tour -- it means a full schedule of regular PGA Tour events in 2010.

For those who finish 126th to 150th, it means conditional status. Those players are slotted behind the 50 who gain exemptions through the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament and the Nationwide Tour -- which is why many of those who finish outside the number will head to the 108-hole Q-school finals in West Palm Beach, Fla., from Dec 2-7.

The difference is substantial for a player trying to set a schedule or hoping to get enough opportunities in order to avoid this very scenario a year from now.

"It was a battle, and I wasn't too sure," said former PGA Championship winner Rich Beem, who began the week No. 124 and moved up to No. 122. "I must say it was about as odd as I've ever felt. I never expected myself to feel the way that I did, but I was really ... when somebody tells you you can't do your job next year and you know you're so close, that's not such a good feeling."

Beem said he never knew where he stood Sunday as he was shooting 4-under-par 68 to give himself a very good chance to stay inside the top 125. And since he was in one of the first groups to finish, it was a nervous few hours for Beem, who had to wait and see how it played out -- and did so by checking computers in the media center.

How Thompson knew where he stood while shooting 66 is beyond comprehension. The permutations associated with who would and would not finish among the top 125 on the final PGA Tour money list were changing by the minute.

Thompson, 26, quipped that "I went to Georgia Tech, so I can do them on the fly out there, too," but really, staying on top of what you need to do other than shoot the lowest score possible is sheer lunacy.

For example, Thompson began the week 132nd on the money list. After shooting 72-69-68, he was in a tie for 24th and knew he probably had to shoot a low score.

"I knew I needed to make roughly $100,000, and $100,000 is between 12th and 14th, somewhere in there," he said. "So I know I need to finish there or better to have a chance."

Thompson was correct. His 66 gave him a tie for 11th, which earned him $103,400 to move up to 123rd on the money list. And he didn't make life any easier on himself when he hit his tee shot on the 18th hole in the rough. Thompson had to play his second shot from the trees, and damaged his 6-iron when hitting his approach -- that nearly went in the water.

From there, Thompson chunked his pitch shot onto the green, leaving himself the long par putt -- and the lengthy bogey putt that felt nearly as good as winning a tournament.

As it turned out, only two players who started the week outside of the top 125 played their way in -- Thompson and Jimmy Walker, who moved from 130th to 125th with a tie for 15th finish.

Walker made a double-bogey on the 17th hole to seriously damage his chances. "There's nothing I can do," he said after parring the 18th hole. "I'll sit back and relax -- but you can't relax."

As it turned out, Walker made it by just more than $3,000, which is minuscule in a year of thousands of golf shots.

Those who got bumped out were No. 123 Robert Garrigus and No. 125 David Duval, both of whom missed the cut.

None of it is made any easier if a player considers the plight of Hall of Famer Tom Watson. Now 60, Watson nearly won the British Open, losing in a playoff to Stewart Cink. It was one of just two PGA Tour events Watson played this year and it was the only cut he made. He earned $732,603 and ended up 114th on the money list based on that one finish.

Thompson was playing in his 31st tournament of the season. Chris Riley, who came into the tournament 126th, had a chance to keep his card with a good week, but finished 129th, less than $33,000 out of the top 125. He played 22 times this year.

"There's going to be some other guys feeling like I am tonight, but you know, it's so competitive out here, it's a chore to get in that 125," Riley, 35, said. "I really finished golf tournaments off poorly this year. That's the reason why I am where I'm at. I've had a couple of opportunities really not to even worry about 125.

"But I'm getting older and I'm starting to think about it coming down to the end, so nerves were starting to play. When I was in my 20s, I didn't even think about it."

Thompson was definitely thinking about it, perhaps too much. And when it was over, he could only wait -- but decided not to. The older brother of amateur phenom Alexis Thompson got in his car and headed home to South Florida.

"There's nothing I can do," he said. "I'll be on the turnpike and somebody will call me."

No doubt.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.