End of season brings dramatic finishes

In contemporary times, tales of the rich, spoiled athlete have dominated our perception of many of our sports heroes. Agents, business managers and public relations machines choreograph their extravagant lifestyles. On the PGA Tour, there are some very rich players -- the ones that fly private and demand seven figures when they play abroad, the ones so consistent year after year that not making at least $2 million is considered a bad season.

But for the vast majority of professional golfers, making that top 125 on the money list at the end of the season is an attainable goal -- the everyman millionaire who plays around the cut line every week. As good as Bubba Watson has been all year -- winning twice at the Farmers Insurance Open and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans -- he told me that perhaps his greatest satisfaction is knowing that with those victories he's earned the right to play three more years on the PGA Tour. It means security and that's never given on the PGA Tour. Just ask a host of major champions from David Duval to Shaun Micheel to Rich Beem to Todd Hamilton to John Daly.

Last year in the season-ending Children's Miracle Network Classic in Orlando, Fla., 25-year-old Troy Merritt took that last spot on the top 125 with a final-round 67 to finish 30th in the tournament, edging out Johnson Wagner by $33,000. Wagner had that last spot locked up until he double bogeyed the par-4 16th hole.

Roland Thatcher needed a win or a solo second in Orlando to retain his card for this year. He had a four-shot lead going into the final round, but ended up losing by three shots to the eventual winner, Robert Garrigus. Although he blew the tournament, Thatcher saved his card by making a 5-footer on the 72nd hole to shoot an even-par 72 to finish second, ending the year at 122nd on the money list.

Merritt, who won the $1 million Kodak Challenge in a playoff after the end of play in Orlando against Rickie Fowler and Aaron Baddeley, will be in a field this week at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. The tournament is loaded with players trying to keep their cards for next year.

The Las Vegas event is one of the smaller ones on tour -- $4.4 million purse and $756,000 to the winner -- which probably keeps some of the top players away. The stars can still use the excuse of it coming immediately following a demanding six weeks from the PGA Championship to the Tour Championship.

Of the 28 rookies in the Shriners field, only Scott Stallings, Kyle Stanley, Jhonattan Vegas, Brendan Steele and Kevin Chappell have their cards locked up for next year. There could be a player out of that group of strivers to make a run this week. The tournament should favor a proven winner in the field such as Vegas resident Nick Watney and last year's winner here Jonathan Byrd, but anybody with a hot putter can win.

For the past two years, the TPC Summerlin course has been the easiest par-71 on the PGA Tour. The scoring average last year when Jonathan Byrd won with a 21-under par total was 68.956.

Still, there is a lot for the top guns to play for this week. The top 30 off the money list at the end of the year get into the first two majors of 2012. Presently, Y.E Yang is holding the 30th spot, but guys like Rickie Fowler are lurking just behind it. Last year, J.B. Holmes finished the season 31st, $1,439 behind Heath Slocum and as a result, Holmes didn't tee it up in either the Masters or the U.S. Open in 2011.

This year's event, hosted by Justin Timberlake, promises to be exciting. Byrd's walk off hole-in-one in the dusk at the 200-yard, par-3 17th was one of the most impressive shots of the 2010 golf season -- worldwide. And the week before, Rocco Mediate made eagles from all over the place to get his sixth career win at the Frys.Com Open, his first victory since 2002.

So we should expect more of the unexpected this week at the first of the four Fall Series events. Don't be surprised to see Watney, Ryan Moore and Byrd fight it out down the stretch on Sunday at TPC Summerlin. I have a hunch we might see more magic in the desert.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.