For Roland Thatcher, no need for school

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- He lost, but he won. He gagged, but he was clutch. He walked away without a trophy, but he does go home with a job.

Roland Thatcher was the happiest guy in the Magic Kingdom on Sunday night, and he had just lost the golf tournament at Walt Disney World.

"I've never got so many congratulations for throwing away a tournament," he said.

And that he did.

Thatcher, 33, began the final round of the Children's Miracle Network Classic with a 4-stroke advantage and still led by 2 with seven holes to play.

That's when the enormity of the situation got to Thatcher, who came into the final tournament of the year 179th on the money list. He was prepared to go to the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament on Tuesday, then found himself leading after he had fared no better than 10th all year.

"I just kind of fell apart out there," Thatcher said. "I played tight, couldn't get out of my own way."

Meanwhile, Robert Garrigus, dealing with his own demons, was surging. Garrigus had somewhat dubiously blown the tournament in Memphis earlier this year when he squandered a 3-shot lead on the 72nd hole.

That led to a playoff loss to Lee Westwood, now the No. 1 player in the world.

Garrigus, meanwhile, was languishing on the money list, only 122nd entering this week and in need of a good tournament to keep his card. He shot 31 on the front nine Sunday and finished with an impressive 64 to win the tournament by 3 shots.

There is no shame in losing to a 64, but Thatcher needed only a 69 -- he opened with scores of 65-63-70 -- for a playoff. His first PGA Tour victory started slipping away when he three-putted the 12th green for a bogey.

He was still tied with Garrigus, however, until a 2-shot swing where Garrigus birdied the 17th and Thatcher bogeyed the 16th.

And that's when it really got intense, because short of a victory, Thatcher needed to finish no worse than second alone to earn enough money to finish among the top 125 and keep his PGA Tour card for next year.

"[I] started looking more towards making sure I finished top two and less towards making sure I won the golf tournament, and that's just a really poor place to be playing from," Thatcher said. "And that's where I was, and I just played tight from that point on."

Thatcher made another bogey at the 17th hole while Spencer Levin, playing in the same group, birdied the hole by draining a lengthy putt from across the green. Now they were tied for second.

"Obviously I was pretty devastated," Thatcher said.

But Levin -- unaware of Thatcher's plight -- provided an opening when he three-putted the final green for a bogey. Thatcher had run his 35-foot birdie putt 5 feet past the hole, and now had that par putt to finish second by himself and inside the top 125.

"Spencer and I are good friends, but at that point in time, obviously I was hoping he was going to miss it," Thatcher said. "If he makes that putt, it doesn't matter whether I make it or not, I'm going to Q-school.

"So it's really horrible to say you're rooting against your friend in that situation, but I was rooting for him to miss it, and he did. I could at least give myself an opportunity."

Not that it was easy.

"I couldn't imagine having a more stressful moment in my life up to this point," said Thatcher, who rolled in the par putt. "So to be able to come out on the other side of that, on the good side of it, is just amazing for me."

Said Levin: "It's kind of crazy when you look at it after it's all said and done."

Thatcher came to Florida with no expectations. And why would he have any? His best finish of the year was a tie for 10th in New Orleans back in April.

Since then, he had played in 15 tournaments and missed 10 cuts, including six in a row at one point. His best finish during that stretch? A tie for 50th.

So to think he was going to finish solo second -- which is what he needed to do -- in order to keep his PGA Tour card was a bit of a stretch.

"I was just hoping to play four rounds, get some momentum for the second stage of Q-school," he said.

Had he finished outside of the top 150 money winners, Thatcher would have been at a 72-hole second-stage event on Tuesday in Houston. And had he not finished second, he would be headed to the finals of Q-school next month back here in Orlando.

Now that's not necessary -- and it even means a refund of his $4,500 Q-school check will be forthcoming.

"I know I won a lot of money today [$507,600] which will be a big help to my family," Thatcher said. "But it will be sweet to get that check back from the tour. I will have a special place for that."

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