Keeping cards crucial down at Disney

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The concept seems simple enough. Don't let it come down to the last week of the year. Take care of business as early as possible. Turn this into a fun time at Disney rather than a roller coaster of emotions.

James Driscoll muffled a slight chuckle when the subject came up this week at the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, the final official PGA Tour event of the 2011 season.

Driscoll, 34, entered the week at No. 125 on the money list. Only the top 125 are fully exempt for next year. Another poor week and Driscoll's 2012 season could greatly be affected.

So yes, he wishes he could have been well up the money list at this point and not turned the weekend at Disney's tour stop into such a gut-churning exercise.

"Everybody out here can look at a stretch of holes where they didn't capitalize [this year]," Driscoll said. "That's the game. There are ups and downs. Everyone goes through the same stuff, so it doesn't do any good to dwell on it.

"I don't think the position I'm in is any different than about 40 other guys here. I've known all along that the money I have up to this point [$645,835] isn't going to be enough. I've known that for the last couple of months. I've kind of been under the same pressure for the last month from Vegas [the first Fall Series event] up until now trying to make a few dollars and get out of this position.

"I obviously haven't done it."

It's a numbers game, and every year a group of players will find themselves in this position, wondering how they might have made things easier on themselves, sweating out the final tournament.

It was at Disney a year ago when Roland Thatcher uttered one of the quotes of the year after holing a par putt on the final green that he absolutely had to have to get inside the top 125 on the money list -- after blowing a final-round lead in the tournament.

"You'll never see a happier guy who just vomited away a tournament," he said.

Despite that trauma, Thatcher found himself in the precarious position of No. 120 this week.

And that is often what this tournament is about, although this week it has the added bonus of Webb Simpson and Luke Donald fighting it out for the money title.

Typically, however, it's about the guys fighting to stay exempt.

"You don't ever put it out of your mind," said Billy Mayfair, who entered the week 127th on the money list and trails Driscoll by just over $12,000. Mayfair had to return to Q-School last year, where he was the medalist. "You just go out there and you try to make this as a normal tournament here. I've played here 22 years and I enjoy playing here.

"I think once you tee off and get going out there, you just try to give it a moment. ... Sure I want to play well and get my card but still want to try and win this week. That's your goal. That's what we're really doing here. We all have little goals and all that stuff, but you don't put it out of your mind.

"If you start playing well, it's a lot easier, that's for sure."

Realistically, though, the idea of winning can't be at the forefront of any players' mind who is struggling to keep his card. Being in this position usually means you've rarely, if ever, contended for a tournament title during the season.

Driscoll has two top-10s, with a fifth at the Travelers Championship his best finish, but he missed 12 cuts in 23 starts. Through 36 holes, tied for 8th at 8 under, four off the lead of Justin Leonard, Bio Kim and Henrik Stenson.

Mayfair, a five-time PGA Tour winner, had just one top-10 and has missed 12 cuts. William McGirt is 138th on the money list despite playing in 31 events this year. He missed 11 of his first 19 cuts and has no top-10s. He came to Disney needing at least $124,000 to move into the top 125, which means he needs a top-10 finish.

"My back is against the wall," said McGirt, who is T-8 halfway through the tournament. "Just trying to make as many birdies as we can. ... I'm just trying to play golf. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. All I can do is play my best."

The perks for getting into the top 125 are clear. It means a player can participate in any full-field event on the PGA Tour schedule (outside of the majors, which have different qualifications).

Falling outside of the top 125 means a more difficult scheduling road for 2012. A player who is 126th to 150th is considered partially exempt, but he is behind exempt players who have won majors, tournaments, the top 125 and the 50 players who make it through the Nationwide Tour and the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament.

A few thousand dollars can mean a player falls 50 positions or more back, making entry into many tournaments difficult.

If you fall outside of the top 150 -- as many players here are facing -- the consequences are more dire. A player then has no PGA Tour status and must go to the second stage of Q-School (a 72-hole tournament) followed by the finals (108 holes) just to regain status.

Driscoll knows all about it. He finished 157th on the money list last year after being 104th the year prior. That meant a return to two stages of Q-School, and he made it to the finals, where he tied for 16th to get back on tour this year.

"Being outside the top 150 is really nerve-racking because then you've got second stage of Q-School. If you don't do well there, then you're 100 percent back on the Nationwide [Tour]," Driscoll said. "So that was a tough position to be in last year.

"I was proud of the way I played. I finished tied for first at the second stage and then made it through finals. So I was pretty proud of the way I kind of buckled down and got it done there."

Of course, he'd much rather get it done here.

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