As careers blow in the wind over a 3-foot putt, 'choking' a real possibility

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- And so the stage is set for the only tournament in golf for which winning is an afterthought.

All the scuttlebutt at the top of the leaderboard -- Harrison Frazar's 5-shot lead included -- plays second fiddle to what's happening a bit farther down the list.

The magic number may have been Frazar's 59 in the fourth round, but it's 25 from here on out.

Anyone who finishes among the top 25 including ties on Monday earns a PGA Tour card for 2009, so the big battle isn't to be No. 1; it's to get inside the cut line. There are 32 players within 3 shots of the current top 25, while 20 players currently inside the top 25 are within 3 shots of falling out.

Sleeping on a lead at a regular tour event is a cakewalk compared to flirting with the cut line as the final day of Q-school begins.

"It's so nerve-racking it's a joke," said Neal Lancaster, who shot 2-under 70 Sunday and is 2 shots out of the top 25. "The hardest part is if you're running in there about 30th place."

Trying to figure out what the final number will be -- and thus what you need to shoot in the final round -- is the game within the game. If the PGA Tour cards were handed out Sunday, the number would be 14 under par.

But that number had been changing by about 3 shots per round through the first four days. On Sunday, it remained the same as it would have been Saturday.

"Guys start thinking about what's going on here," said Lancaster, 47, a former PGA Tour winner. "These kids don't know what they're getting ready to go out there and do. … You can see it in guys' faces -- they're choking."

Guys near the top have room to choke. Frazar, for instance, is 13 shots clear of the cut line, and it would take an unlikely collapse for him not to earn a tour card. But the players teetering on the edge of the cut line need every possible stroke.

So while a 5-under 67 on Sunday by James Nitties was a nice round that moved him into second place, it moved him 8 shots inside the cut line and became far less important than a 9-under 63 by Notah Begay that moved Begay from 95th place to 21st.

"I pulled a rabbit out of a hat there," said Begay, who had rather pedestrian rounds of 72-70-69-71 to open the tournament.

Begay, a four-time PGA Tour winner, is recovering from a series of back injuries that derailed his career. He's seeking to regain full status for the first time since 2004 and said he was growing frustrated through the first few days because he had played well but was unable to score well. On Sunday, he made the biggest move of the day.

"I didn't know if it was going to happen today or tomorrow or next year, but I knew I was going to have a good round at some point because I was hitting it too good and too close," he said. "I just knew if I hung in there things might turn."

Tommy Gainey had his big move with a 65 in the third round, but he has been unable to follow it up and is currently 2 shots outside of the top 25. He acknowledged it's not an ideal position, but after making it through Q-school last year and a final-round 64 that helped him finish second to Davis Love III at the Children's Miracle Network Classic last month, he's confident he can make it through.

"I know I got the game, and all I have to do is make some putts and shoot a good number," he said.

His place among the field, he said, is not as important to him right now as focusing on playing the course Monday.

"I'll try to do a little mathematician work to see how deep I really need to go," he said. "But it doesn't matter if you are right on the number or one or two shots out, you still have to shoot a good round. If you worry about your position, you aren't going to worry about hitting good shots and making birdies."

Lancaster, a 18-year PGA Tour veteran in the Q-school finals for the fifth time, said he was ready to give up on his PGA Tour career after earning only $54,680 in 2006, but said he got the urge to play again while watching tournaments on television and is happy just to be in position to get back on the tour.

"Maybe tomorrow I can go out and my experience will prevail a little bit," he said. "Maybe these kids will start backing up when they start thinking about their cards."

Lancaster said his plan for Sunday night was simple: Watch football and hit balls into the curtains in his hotel room.

"I actually hit balls into the curtains in the hotel rooms a lot," he said.

Other than that, there isn't much else to do.

"Just hope you've got it tomorrow, and if you don't, hey, it's not the end of the world," he said.

Begay also said he wouldn't do anything different before the final round.

"I won't change anything," he said. "I'll still make dinner for my brother tonight and we'll just do our same routine. I'll do my yoga in the morning and get out here and see if I can keep it going."

That's easier said than done. The pressure, of course, will intensify as the final round wears on. Most players are aware of the well-chronicled affairs of players at Q-school who miss 3-foot putts or bogey the last hole and then miss the cut by a shot.

"I don't think it matters if you're a rookie or a veteran, you're still feeling it," Lancaster said. "It's hard to let it go sometimes, and I'll be glad when tomorrow is over, basically."

You won't find anybody feeling sorry for those hovering near the cut line, however. Not when there are nearly a hundred other players who would love to be within 3 shots of the cut line.

Plus, everyone has played the same courses under the same conditions and shot what they shot. In other words, those dealing with the pressure of the cut line have made their own beds, and now they have to sleep in them.

If they can sleep, that is.

Peter Yoon is a contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.