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It comes and it goes and then comes again for tour rookie Gates

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Rather than accept a frustrating golfing fate, Bobby Gates changes his. (Getty Images)  
Rather than accept a frustrating golfing fate, Bobby Gates changes his. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The condolences came quickly.

Unfortunately, they we also plentiful.

Promising rookie Bobby Gates had just experienced perhaps the most deflating moment a PGA Tour player could conjure up in his scariest delirium, when he ran into a guy who had just produced a completely different outcome.

Tour veteran D.J. Trahan had canned a 22-foot putt for birdie on the last hole of the season at Disney World to finish exactly 125th on the money list, executing an 11-hour, 59th-minute, 59th-second salvation session that was impressively clutch.

Gates, in turn, had not. Platitudes and pleasantries followed.

Hang in there. It's not the end of the world. You'll still get starts at plenty of tournaments next year. Sorry it turned out this way.

Trahan surely meant it, but it was easy for him to say. This was like the winner consoling the loser ... at a funeral. Gates, a 25-year-old rookie, was the guy who'd been bumped. After making crucial birdies on his 16th and 17th holes, he'd three-putted his last hole of the year from about 45 feet, live on the Golf Channel, to finish No. 126 in earnings.

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The ball nicked the lip, a margin only slightly smaller than this: Gates finished $1,431 in final seasonal earnings behind Trahan, who, had he not made the last-ditch birdie, would have finished 126th behind Gates by the not-so-princely sum of $288 -- or roughly enough for a family of three to cruise the Disney theme park for a day, Maalox not included.

"It's always hard to finish like that, because the first thing that's going to come to mind, you are going to dwell on that the most, because it is the most recent memory," Gates said this week. "It stung for a few days. But then I had to sort of sit down and grow up a little."

He matured plenty over the weekend at PGA Tour Qualifying School outside Palm Springs, Calif., where he not only put the jarring ending behind him, he started rewriting his playing bio for 2012, too.

This time the scoreboard read: Gates 1, Fates 0.

Shaking off the ignoble Disney finish, Gates matched the low number of the day in the final round Monday, jumping into a tie for third to reclaim fully exempt honors for next season. Forget Sunday; this time, Monday was his day of atonement.

He began the throat-constricting sixth round in great shape at T13 -- the top 25 players received cards for 2012 -- and never balked, much less burped, as the whirlwind this time swept away other guys.

"It was another one of those deals, kinda like Disney, where it's so fluid, you never really know," Gates said of the frenetic final round. "There are people who don't count toward the top 25, some who do, and so you just have to go out and say, 'I gotta make more birdies.'"

His closing 6-under 66 included four birdies and an eagle, and by the time he reached the final green, he could have played ice hockey with the ball and it wouldn't have mattered a lick. He ended up earning his card by an impressive eight strokes. That's a long way removed from the final round on Oct. 23 at Disney, though not in terms of time per se. In the interim, Gates couldn't help but recall the two putts inside 3 feet he had missed at the Frys.com Open in the Fall Series, or the three-putt final green in Mexico that cost him about $60,000. On the plus side, he reminded himself that he had torched the three closing holes at Quail Hollow, one of the toughest finishing stretches in the game. When you lose your full status by a single shot, it all comes flooding back.

"There's stuff like that that goes on throughout the year," he said. "There's the good and bad of it. It's not fun to have to dwell on the most recent one at Disney."

He might have dwelled, but he didn't rent a room. Some of his pals helped him out too. Golf being a brutal sport mentally, everybody's had their teeth kicked in at some point, so peers practically lined up to give Gates, a former star at Texas A&M, a pat on the back.

The old, wise heads included Roland Thatcher, who has been touched by the fickle hand of fate so many times, it's hard to track it all. Exactly a year earlier at Disney, Thatcher faced a similar putt on the final hole of the year, needing it to retain his card for 2011, and converted it. This season, he finished one slot behind Gates at No. 127.

You want cruel? Ten years ago at Q-school finals, Thatcher hit a ball over the green that caromed off a cart path and onto the roof of the clubhouse, making a mess of the hole when a par would have secured his tour card. Gates and Thatcher are neighbors in The Woodlands, Tex., not to mention on the 2011 money list.

When they spoke of Gates' soul-sapping experience at Disney, Thatcher doubtlessly said something akin to, "Been there, done that."

"He's been around 120-130 on the money list, it seems like, every year," Gates said. "He gave me some good advice and said don't worry, keep going, it's golf and we're still in a great position.

"There was no reason for people to feel sorry for how it ended for me. I gave it all I had."

Gates had been dealing with the money-list pressure points even before the last hole -- he began Disney at No. 124 in earnings. James Driscoll, in the ejector seat at No. 125, was his playing partner for the first two rounds. Yeah, real funny.

The three-putt green obscured a fairly solid start by traditional first-timer standards. Gates, 25, was promoted from the Nationwide Tour and was part of the deepest PGA Tour rookie class in years, so his play in 2011 was overshadowed by players such as Keegan Bradley, Jhonny Vegas, Chris Kirk, Brendan Steele and Scott Stallings, who all won tournaments. But in truth, retaining a tour card during a player's first trip through the circuit is a difficult proposition -- ask future U.S. Open champ Lucas Glover, who lost his card and was shipped back to Q-school.

Given the learning curve that all rookies face, Gates missed the brass ring by a single stupid stroke, a solid debut season in most years.

"The great thing about being a rookie is if you can go out and do well, when seeing these places for the first time, it gives you confidence playing against guys who have been out there for years and played those courses," he said. "You're going into the week trying to learn everything in two days. You're having to learn very complex greens, yardages with different winds, everything, in really a single practice round. It's a huge adjustment."

Then there are the planes, trains and automobiles, hotels, restaurants and other logistics that living out of a suitcase require. Playing on the Nationwide prepped him only for some of it.

"In the end, when you step up to the first tee at your first PGA Tour event, you're just as scared as anyone will ever be," he laughed. "[Logistics] is all stuff you learn as a rookie.

"Even the simplest things. I showed up at the tournament in Mississippi this year and it took me 20 minutes to figure out where the locker room was."

Now a battle-tested sophomore, he won't need a course map to find his way around the various venues in 2012.

Thanks to his redemption in the desert, he won't need any more condolences or sympathy cards, either.

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