By keeping card, Stadler feels like a winner

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There was no congratulatory handshake from Mickey Mouse, no cardboard check to pose alongside, no trophy to hoist. Kevin Stadler will not be coming back to Walt Disney World as the defending champion.

But he still smiled like a winner on Sunday.

That is the only way to feel after surviving the pressure-cooker that is pursuit of a PGA Tour card.

It may not be a tournament title, but it is a victory of another sort.

Finishing 124th on the PGA Tour money list might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but it beats finishing 126th -- which leads to a world of different scenarios for players put in that predicament.

Or, as Stadler so eloquently said, "It's not life or death, but it's a hell of a big deal."

The son of 1982 Masters winner and Champions Tour player Craig Stadler, Kevin shot a final-round 1-under-par 71 at Disney's Magnolia course to finish tied for 15th at the Children's Miracle Network Classic, the final event of the 2007 PGA Tour season. He was seven strokes behind winner Stephen Ames, and nearly as content.

Stadler hit 6,852 shots this year on the PGA Tour, but two more on Sunday would have meant an entirely different mindset. First, it would have left him approximately $43,000 poorer. But more importantly, he would have been bumped out of the top 125, finishing behind Ben Curtis, the 2003 British Open champion who missed the cut.

And how big is that?

Well, those few strokes would mean that he would have fallen behind the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour money list and the top 30 and ties at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament in next year's pecking order. He would still get into 18 to 20 events and could have tried to improve his position by competing in the 108-hole final stage of Q-school in a few weeks.

"Now I don't have to do that," said Stadler, who has won four times on the Nationwide Tour and captured the 2006 Johnnie Walker Classic in the European Tour. "That is the biggest thing. I did not want to face that. It's only six days but it feels like three weeks."

Stadler and J.B. Holmes were the only players who moved into the top 125 this week, bumping out Ted Purdy and Curtis. But Holmes was already exempt for 2008 because of his 2006 victory at the FBR Open. And Curtis is exempt by virtue of his British Open win.

It was also a big week for Robert Gamez and Jeff Gove, who moved inside the top 150, thus getting a pass out of the second stage of Q-school while gaining conditional status on the PGA Tour. Anyone finishing worse than 150th does not have any status on the tour, unless they are a past champion.

Stadler is the first to admit that it never should have come down to the final tournament, the final 18 holes, the final nine or even his last drive.

But after missing the cut at the Ginn sur Mer Classic last week a few hours south of here, Stadler had fallen to 127th on the money list, prompting a long drive to Orlando filled with self abuse.

"You guys can probably guess," he said. "I beat myself up pretty good with everything I do."

He was seemingly in good shape after a tie for second at the Reno-Tahoe Open and a tie for seventh at the Wyndham Championship in August pushed his season earnings to more than $700,000.

But he missed five of seven cuts after that, including the two FedEx Cup playoff events for which he qualified.

"I don't know if I got too comfortable," he said. "I played a lot of golf and almost didn't want to be out there. I was in a position this week where I had to play good. I played really solid, better than I had the past six to eight weeks, because it is what I had to do.

"I guess I had a hard time getting geared up even though I saw myself dropping on the list. I was a little tired and in a bad mood most of the time. I didn't really get anything out of it, sort of going through the motions. I had a wake-up call when I dropped out of the top 125. I had to play well to get it back."

Stadler hovered around the magic number for most of the final round. A bogey at the ninth hole left him at 1-over-par for the day and feeling the heat.

"I had no idea what the guys around me were shooting, I couldn't keep tabs on them," he said. "I wasn't really too caught up in it for that reason. I just had to play as well as I could."

And he did. Stadler played the back nine in 2-under-par, including a birdie at the tough par-4 16th. He didn't relax until he coaxed in a 1-footer for par at the 18th hole.

"It's very similar to being in contention to win a tournament," he said. "I've never really been in the position on this stage, but had some wins on the Nationwide Tour and won last year in Europe. It is nervous, but a very similar feeling to coming down the stretch when you're in contention."

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.