HUMBLE, Texas – The race is on for golf’s final golden ticket.
A win at any point in the PGA Tour season is a welcome result, bringing with it a bevy of perks. But this particular week at the Shell Houston Open offers players just one perk - the simplest, yet most coveted perk of all.
Lift the trophy on Sunday, and your next stop is the front gate at Augusta National.
It’s the kind of stuff that players dream about, a motivator that can drive hours of offseason practice. And for Jamie Lovemark and Jim Herman, it’s tantalizingly close after three rounds at the Golf Club of Houston.
But Lovemark and Herman aren’t just playing for the chance to take their first trip down Magnolia Lane. They’re also playing for their first Tour victory.
The two have taken very different paths to this point. Lovemark, 28, was a can’t-miss prospect who has battled injury and is now beginning to play to the level many expected when he first turned pro in 2009.
Herman, meanwhile, is a 38-year-old journeyman who has bounced between circuits and just last season made the FedEx Cup Playoffs for the first time.
But now they are united in the spotlight, sharing the 54-hole lead and sitting one shot clear of a potent chase pack.
Lovemark began the day one shot behind Charley Hoffman, but a 2-under 70 gave him a share of the overnight lead for the first time in his career. Seven years after losing a playoff at the Frys.com Open, he is older, wiser, healthier and eager to close the deal.
“That was my third or fourth event as a pro. Things seemed kind of easy,” Lovemark said. “Hindsight, it’s not too easy after all. I’m not taking much for granted, just going to do what I do.”
Herman moved into contention with a bogey-free 68, channeling form that seemingly came out of nowhere. He had only one top-40 finish in eight starts this year, and Herman hadn’t broken 70 in his last 10 rounds entering the week.
But now he has strung three straight sub-70 scores together, and with only a handful of top-10 finishes to his credit he is on the cusp of a breakthrough victory.
“Houston or any of the other places would be fantastic, just to get one,” Herman said. “I’ve been out here five years, and we’ll see what happens tomorrow. If it goes my way, that would be awesome.”
Lovemark and Herman will have to cope with the crucible that Sunday’s final pairing creates, but their quest is also complicated by the pedigree of players hot on their heels. Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Russell Henley all have multiple Tour wins, and each is eager to add another.
For Stenson especially, it’s a chance to end an 18-month victory drought that has included a myriad of close calls.
“I know I can play my best, and hopefully bring that out on the final days as well,” Stenson said. “I think some of my fellow colleagues might have been more fortunate in those situations, and a few times I haven’t delivered what I need to deliver. It’s been a bit of a combo, but I’d love to get on the No. 1 podium.”
Ever the cool customer, Lovemark strode to the podium after his third round and said all the right things: a win’s a win, whether it comes here or elsewhere. The focus remains on getting the job done, stamping your name as the best for at least one week at the highest level. A Masters invitation is merely icing on the cake.
“Not too concerned about it, honestly,” he said. “If I play next week, that’s great. Obviously a win on any level is very important to me.”
But this isn’t just any other week we’re talking about. Players can use the SHO as golf’s fastest launching pad, teeing it up in the season’s first major before the trophy even has a chance to collect dust.
Plus, you know, it’s Augusta National. It’s the Masters. The place – and the event – speak for themselves.
“You know there’s a lot to play for tomorrow,” Herman said. “You think about it coming into the week. This is your last chance to get to Augusta, but it’s more than that. I’m not going to put any more pressure on myself than I already might.”
For Herman and Lovemark, this could be the point at which their professional career paths pivot. This could be the event that transforms them from “PGA Tour member” to “PGA Tour winner.” It’s a distinction that both covet, and one that can’t be erased.
To do it, they’ll need to outlast each other, not to mention those in close pursuit, under pressures that are largely unfamiliar. But if they manage to pull it off, they’ll not only graduate to a new tier professionally, they’ll get to take the best post-victory trip the game offers.
Golden tickets, after all, come around only so often.