Lots of drama in final 2011 PGA Tour event

The race for the money title on the PGA Tour is going down to the final event for the first time in 15 years.

The Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, which began Thursday at Disney World, features the Tour's top two money-winners – Webb Simpson and Luke Donald. Simpson, who lost in a playoff to Ben Crane last week at the McGladrey Classic, holds a $363,029 lead over Donald.

Winning the Arnold Palmer Award as the season’s top earner could ultimately determine whom the players select as PGA Tour player of the year. However, you figure that PGA champion Keegan Bradley also would be strongly considered since he won a major, something that neither Simpson nor Donald did.

According to the tour, the worst Donald can finish if he wants to pass Simpson is a two-way tie for second. Simpson could hold on to the lead by finishing second if Donald wins, or by finishing eighth or better if Donald takes second by himself.

“It feels a little bit like the FedEx Cup and the Tour Championship,” said Donald, the world’s No. 1-ranked player. “Third place isn’t going to get it done.”

Actually, Donald, a graduate of Northwestern, had been invited to serve as an honorary captain for the Wildcats Saturday night against Penn State. However, he chose to enter the final tour event in an attempt to become the first player to win the PGA Tour and European Tour money titles in the same year.

Whatever happens with Simpson, it’s been a terrific year. He finished last season as the world’s 207th-ranked player and was grateful to secure his PGA Tour card. Now he’s No. 12 in the world.

“The year has been a success throughout,” he said. “Whatever happens, we’re going to be happy. But we want to finish strong and try to have a clean sweep. It would be awesome.”

Of course, the tour’s final event of 2011 also has the drama of players seeking to finish in the Top 125 on the money list to keep their Tour cards for next year. In order, the players ranked from 123 through 127 entering the event are D.J. Trahan, Bobby Gates, James Driscoll, Bill Lunde and Billy Mayfair.

After Thursday’s opening round, Driscoll and Donald are part of a 7-way tie for the lead at 6-under-par 66. Simpson is two shots back.

The last time the lead on the money list changed hands on the final week of the season was 1996, when Tom Lehman won the Tour Championship to pass Phil Mickelson.

--Joe Juliano