Long gone are the days when players like Irish legend Christy OConnor Sr. turned down invites to Augusta because the round trip airfare was too expensive; the risk/reward too high.
Now you have big and medium names alike going deep into the Fall Series (also a mostly-unqualified success in its first year) chasing a spot in the top 30 on the final 2007 PGA TOUR money list and the automatic Masters bid that goes with it.
I have to say, plain and simple, Im here to maintain my spot at Augusta, said Steve Flesch Thursday after opening with a 5-under 68 at the Ginn sur Mer Classic at Tesoro, the penultimate event of the Fall Series. Neither of my victories earlier in the year gave me an automatic exemption to Augusta. So I am here to maintain my position in the top 30.
Flesch arrived at Tesoro holding down the No. 25 spot on the money list at $2.278 million. Among the players he said he was watching closely were No. 26 Robert Allenby and No. 37 Jerry Kelly.
Ive played a couple of Masters and I want to go back, Flesch added. If you told me 10 weeks ago I would be sitting here trying to maintain my spot, I would say youre crazy.
But Flesch made the mistake of winning on weeks that didnt offer full qualifying status to the Tour Championship. And when Masters officials, earlier this year, changed their qualifying standards to invite Tour winners, they were specific about omitting Fall Series champions or players who won Tour events opposite Tour events with bigger purses.
The Masters announced those changes on the Wednesday of Masters week earlier this year. And when they did, Mark Wilson was excited. One month earlier he had won the Honda Classic. He thought this meant he would be now be getting a coveted invitation to Augusta.
Then I checked the fine print, he said.
And he discovered that the new standards would only apply going forward from last springs Masters. The changes were not retroactive to his victory at Honda. Wilson has subsequently dropped to No. 53 on the money list.
No. 47, Sean OHair finished tied for fourth last week in Scottsdale and 15th the week before that in Las Vegas. A win at Tesoro would earn him $828,000 and guarantee a Masters invitation. A second place finish ($496,000) would probably push him into the top 30 going into next weeks finale at Disney.
OHair has played in only one Masters, shooting 76-76, missing the cut in 2006. Like Flesch he wants to get back. Badly--a pair of 68s Thursday and Friday at Tesoro were a nice start.
So does Justin Leonard, who arrived at Tesoro No. 36 on the money list. Like Flesch, Leonard won a Fall Series event (Valero Texas Open) not recognized by the invitation folks at Augusta. Leonard hasnt missed a Masters since 1995.
Through 36 holes at the Ginn event Leonard was 4 under and in 33rd place. Flesch was 6 under through 12 and in a tie for 17th; OHair 10 under and in a tie for fourth.
As for Allenby and Kelly, Flesch is smart to keep his eyes on them. But both already have qualified for the 2008 Masters under other categories: Allenby for making it to the 2007 Tour Championship and Kelly for finishing in the top 16 in last springs Masters.
Their search for golfs Holy Grail, at least for one more year, has ended in success.
Email your thoughts to Brian Hewitt