Over-50 set still (happily) toiling on tour

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- You can safely assume that earning just under $1 million for 10 weeks of work is a pretty good gig.

That is what Tom Pernice, 51, did this year on the Champions Tour, the 50-and-over circuit that features mostly 54-hole events and the use of a golf cart, if they so choose.

So why is Pernice here at Walt Disney World, sweating it out beneath the Monorail -- instead of riding it -- with kids half his age and trying to secure his PGA Tour card for 2011 at the season-ending Children's Miracle Network Classic?

"As long as my game's there where I feel like I can still compete, I want to play against the best in the world," said Pernice, who needs to earn about $100,000 this weekend to assure himself of that opportunity. "This game's about being better every day. That's why we work out and we practice and we do all these things.

"So I felt like the quality of my game is good enough to be able to stay out here."

It is a noble pursuit, even if some of Pernice's peers think he's a bit off for not retreating to the relative serenity and monetary benefits of senior golf.

Thing is, he's not alone.

Tom Lehman, a former major champion who won a senior major this year, is also at Disney, trying to play his way into the top 125 money winners so he will be fully exempt on the PGA Tour next year.

And then there's Michael Allen, who has never won a PGA Tour event but shot 61 during the third round of the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup on the Champions Tour last week in San Francisco, finished second then flew to Disney to try and protect his position at No. 124 on the money list.

"I love playing out here," Allen, 51, said. "There's so many wonderful golf tournaments out here that I really enjoy and I've played for so many years.

"And I still haven't won out here. That's the one thing I want to do. I want to be able to finish my career and say I won, so I need more opportunities to do that. And I still feel like I can play out here."

Allen played 16 times on the PGA Tour this year and has earned $726,631 to rank 124th. But he put himself in a precarious position by missing the cut at Disney, leaving his full-time fate in the hands of others this weekend.

Last month, Allen nearly won the Viking Classic, finishing second to earn $388,800 -- more than half of his season total. He tied for fifth at Torrey Pines but missed seven cuts, which ultimately is why he is on the bubble.

And yet, if he wanted to live the easy life amid golf carts and cigars ...

In 14 Champions Tour events, Allen, who won the 2009 Senior Players Championship, had seven top-10s, including three runner-up finishes. He earned more than $1.1 million.

Pernice was even more impressive on the Champions Tour, having finished in the top 10 in his past nine starts, including five top-5s.

Pernice As long as my game's there where I feel like I can still compete, I want to play against the best in the world.

-- Tom Pernice

"A lot of people aren't near as fortunate as I am, so I'm thankful that the Champions Tour is there, and it's a great place to play and all the guys I grew up with and played with out here for 25 years are over there. So I'm not complaining," said Pernice, who came into the week 137th on the PGA Tour money list and is tied for 27th at 6 under after two rounds.

"A lot of them wonder why you want to compete against the best, but that's just my decision."

One of them is Lehman, who has made more of a transition to the Champions Tour, where he played 14 times this year and earned more than $1.1 million, with nine top-10 finishes.

In eight appearances on the regular tour, Lehman had three top-25 finishes and finds himself well outside of the top 125, at No. 178 with $297,800. Lehman, who is tied for 15th at 7 under, would need to finish solo second to move into the top 125.

Now 51, the former British Open champion and U.S. Ryder Cup team captain all but conceded Friday that he would be spending most of next year on the Champions Tour, save for the occasional PGA Tour appearance.

"I feel a bit of a responsibility to support that tour out there," Lehman said. "I enjoy it, really like the guys out there, competition is good. The window out there to be successful is for guys in their early to mid-50s, so I think this is a good time to be out there.

"At the end of the day, you have to be committed one way or the other. I've played two years where I've sort of split my time and played well. But you have to be all in or not."

Then again.

"I was 14th at the British Open this year," Lehman said. "That's the kind of week that makes you think twice."

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