Duval aims to crash through $3m barrier

 

By way of illustrating how the rich get richer, a select field of 30, spearheaded by leading money winner David Duval, will be competing for $4 million in the USPGA Tour Championship which starts at East Lake GC, Georgia, on Thursday. Ironically, they will be at a club where the world's greatest amateur, Bobby Jones, played his last round in 1948.

With a cheque for $720,000 going to the winner, Duval will make history if he repeats his victory of last year. Having already secured $2,470,498, the current money leader would become the first player in the US to pass $3 million in earnings in a season.

The composition of the top-30 was decided in Florida last weekend when John Huston captured the Walt Disney Classic by a stroke from Davis Love. It was Huston's second win of the season, coming eight months after a record-breaking triumph in the Hawaiian Open in which he compiled a 28-under-par aggregate of 260.

As it happens, Andrew Magee has claimed the last place for this week's event. He also had a tight squeak last year but capitalised on the chance by earning a share of 15th place for a reward of $86,400. Indeed the last of the 30 finishers is guaranteed $64,000.

The 30 qualifiers are: Duval, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara, Fred Couples, Justin Leonard, Huston, Love, Mark Calcavecchia, Glen Day, Billy Mayfair, Steve Stricker, Scott Hoch, Payne Stewart, Hal Sutton, Lee Janzen, Scott Verplank, John Cook, Jesper Parnevik, Fred Funk, Jeff Sluman, Nick Price, Bob Tway, Tom Lehman, Bob Estes, Jeff Maggert, Tom Watson and Andrew Magee. Remarkably, there are no fewer than 14 changes from last year's line-up. The most notable absentees are Ernie Els, Greg Norman, Brad Faxon, Loren Roberts, John Cook, Steve Jones and Jeff Maggert.

Els, who is eighth in the European Order of Merit after 11 events on this side of the Atlantic, managed to rise no higher than 36th in the US, despite playing 15 tournaments there. The experience may cause the South African to look seriously at the wisdom of splitting his activities between both tours next season.

Stewart Cink, who was Rookie of the Year in 1997 when he won the Greater Hartford Open, is another absentee from the Tour Championship. But he could consider himself to be decidedly unfortunate to miss out, insofar as he fills 31st position in the money list, $57,000 behind Magee.

Meanwhile, there is no doubting the most impressive achievement by a top-30 player. That distinction goes to Scott Verplank, a former colleague of Philip Walton's at Oklahoma State University. He has climbed to 19th position in the money list with $1,076,769 from 26 events, having regained exempt status by leading the Qualifying School at Grenelefe, Florida last December.

By breaking 70 in four of his six rounds, Verplank had an aggregate of 407 which was 12 strokes better than 12th placed Richard Coughlan. Since then, the gap between them has become decidedly more pronounced, with Coughlan finishing 151st in his debut season on tour.

Verplank won the 1984 US Amateur and the 1986 NCAA Championship. In fact he gained the distinction of winning the 1985 Western Open as an amateur, beating Jim Thorpe in a play-off for the title. It made him the first amateur in 31 years to win a tour event and after turning professional in 1986 he went on to capture the 1988 Buick Open. But he was to suffer serious health problems. Apart from contracting diabetes, Verplank missed most of the 1991 and 1992 seasons and all of 1993 after undergoing elbow surgery. He lost his card 12 months ago when he finished 159th in the money list and his dramatic and lucrative revival is the sort of response Coughlan must now be aiming for.

At the other end of the money business, Blaine McCallister, a qualifier from last year's Tour School, managed to retain his card - on the limit. With earnings of $228,304 from 30 tournaments, McCallister filled 125th in the money list, which is the last qualifying place for exemption in 1999.

Further down the order, Sandy Lyle did himself no favours by shooting a final round of 76 in Sunday's Disney tournament to finish eight strokes behind Coughlan. But the Anglo-Scot still managed to claim 146th place in the money list, which should get him into sufficient events to keep him on tour, should he decide not to go back to the Qualifying School.

Indeed the decline of once fierce rivals is reflected in Nick Faldo's 163rd position in the table, after 15 tournament appearances in the US this year. But Faldo will have no cause for concern should be decide to return to the US next season: he has eight years of a 10-year exemption still to run, for winning a third US Masters title in 1996.

Arguably the most dramatic decline of all, however, is being experienced by Chip Beck, who was in a strong, challenging position for the US Masters title only five years ago, when he was runner-up to Bernhard Langer. Seven years ago this month, Beck sank a three-foot putt on the final hole to shoot 59 in the 1991 Last Vegas Invitational: from 29 tournament appearances this season, he has earned a meagre $10,866.

It leaves the 42-year-old Ryder Cup player in 272nd position in the money list, no fewer than 13 places behind Walton, who didn't even play in the US this year. The $13,736 earned by the Malahide man, came from the British Open at Royal Birkdale.

Beck, who was exempted this year through his position among the tour's top-25 career money list, has experienced serious problems with his swing. And when the last putt drops at East Lake on Sunday, he may find that his exempt status has run out. Still, career earnings of $6,005,490 should help to ease the blow.