ATLANTA — Jhonattan Vegas doesn't have a realistic chance of claiming the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus even if he wins the Tour Championship.
It's having any chance at all that makes this season so remarkable.
"Best year of my career so far," Vegas said Wednesday with as broad a smile as could be found at East Lake. "It's just crazy to think of this from where we started."
Still vivid are memories of how uncertain his career felt a year ago.
Vegas failed to keep his card, and then his season got even worse. With a chance to regain his card in the Web.com Tour Finals, he missed the cut in the final event. That left the 32-year-old from Venezuela with limited status.
"I remember sitting down Friday afternoon after I missed the cut, not knowing where I could play," Vegas said.
He received a sponsor's exemption to the Frys.com Open to start the season, opened with a 64 and tied for 10th to get into the next tournament in Las Vegas. In an opposite-field event in Mississippi, he tied for fourth.
And then he broke through in a big way by winning the RBC Canadian Open in July, and he played well enough in the FedEx Cup playoffs to finish at No. 29 and get into the Tour Championship by a mere four points.
All he wanted to do this year was finish in the top 125 and keep his card.
Now, he is playing the Tour Championship and is assured of playing at least three majors next year, along with World Golf Championships in Mexico and Firestone.
"One of the biggest accomplishments of my career," Vegas said.
For others, there is so much more to accomplish.
The Tour Championship, which starts Thursday, is the final stop of the FedEx Cup season that pays out $10 million to the winner in a finale that is up for grabs among the 30 players who made it to East Lake.
Everyone has a mathematical chance to win the FedEx Cup, though it's unlikely for Vegas. He would have to win, and Dustin Johnson would have to finish 28th.
The focus is more on Johnson, the No. 1 seed, and the next four players behind him — Patrick Reed, Adam Scott, Jason Day and Paul Casey. They only have to win the Tour Championship to claim the prize no matter what anyone else does.
Bill Haas at No. 25 in 2011 was the lowest seed to win the FedEx Cup. The last player to win the Tour Championship without claiming the FedEx Cup was Phil Mickelson in 2009. He wound up second in the FedEx Cup to Tiger Woods.
Johnson and Day have their own competition going. Players will be voting on PGA Tour player of the year at the end of the week. Both have three victories, though Johnson has a big edge from his U.S. Open title (Day's biggest victory was The Player Championship). Johnson also is leading the money list and the Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average. But if Day were to win this week, that might make the vote more complicated.
Vegas is nowhere near that conversation. For him, just getting to East Lake was worth celebrating.
With only past champion status, which he had at the start of the season, he could only count on getting into tournaments where most of the top players didn't show up. It's hard to plan a schedule. There is no continuity. And his confidence was lagging.
It turned out to be the best thing for him.
"Losing my card made me realize how much harder I had to work to get better," Vegas said. "It led me to make a bunch of changes — important changes — that I wasn't ready to make. But it forced me to do them."
Vegas was part of the next wave of impressive young players when he won the Bob Hope Classic in the second start of his rookie season in 2011. The following week, he was tied for the lead at Torrey Pines with eight holes to play and tied for third.
Suddenly, he was playing in majors and World Golf Championships. Over time, he started going through the motions. He lost one year to surgery on his left shoulder. By the end of last season, he had plunged to No. 381 in the world ranking.
"If I kept my card, that was my No. 1 goal," Vegas said. "I knew I had limited starts. I would have about 15 events. So I knew that every week was a major for me. If you approach things that way, your preparation and everything around it is more important. Because you're there to get it done. It puts it in a different perspective."