October 21, 2005
This past weekend, a 41-year-old PGA Tour newcomer named Wes Short, Jr. stunned a lot of folks with his performance in the Michelin Championship at Las Vegas.
Short wasn’t even supposed to be in the tournament. At this point in the season, Short was ranked 176th, with only a few cuts made in the thirteen previous events in which he’d been able to compete.
He’d earned his Tour card for the 2004 season, but an injury took him off the Tour in the middle of that year. Under PGA Tour rules, however, he was granted a special medical exemption to play in 2005. Unless he finished the season in a big way, however, he would be forced to return once again to Q-school, the 6-round grind that no one likes to play.
Fortunately for Short, he made it into the Las Vegas championship when another Tour player, Arron Oberholser, withdrew at the last second.
Short’s rounds of 67, 67, and 66 in the first three rounds kept him in the hunt for a good finish. A tenth place spot would earn him an invitation to the next event, and that was his main goal.
He continued playing well in the last round, however, especially in the last three holes. Short eagled the 16th hole, parred the 17th, and birdied the 18th hole to force a playoff with Tour veteran Jim Furyk, who currently sports a 9th-place world ranking.
Both players parred the first playoff hole, the 18th, and then one of them plopped his tee shot into the water on the second playoff hole, the par-3 17th—but it was Furyk, not Short, who messed up.
After watching his competitor go left into trouble, Short hit his approach shot into a flat bunker right of the green. Furyk’s recovery shot was good, but it didn’t go in. Short then hit a routine shot out of the sand to gimme range. He walked smartly up to his ball and put it in for his first PGA tour win ever.
Now Short doesn’t have to worry about making it to next year’s exempt list.
And why, you might ask, should anyone care about the struggles of professional golfers who play at the margins of eligibility at the end of each season? That’s a very good question, and here’s my answer.
Most of the performers in other professional sports make their money through long-term guaranteed contracts that pay regardless of actual performance. In contrast, the ranks of the professional golf tours are filled each year by players who have no such assurances. Tournament winners are awarded exempt status for two or more years, depending on the event, but otherwise, it’s up to the individual golfer to win enough money each year to earn the right to return to the tour in the next.
That brings a special kind of performance pressure to the touring pros who find themselves near the 125th place bubble in the closing weeks of each year’s tour. I think this burden is of a different kind entirely than the self-imposed drive to play well that produces multiple-win seasons for the game’s highest-ranked players, such as Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh.
When I watch these late-season tournaments, I look for signs that this pressure is having an effect on these lesser-known players, such as the occasional squirrelly drive or a putt that blows past the hole. Nonetheless, what I really enjoy is the sight of these golfers rising to the challenge and playing well enough to secure their card for the next season.
Viewed from that perspective, Wes Short’s performance was simply extraordinary. It’s a great example of someone making the best of his opportunity.