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Opportunities await Tour Championship qualifiers

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This week, many players are focused on outlasting the 70-man field at the BMW Championship; others are looking to improve their playoff positioning for a better shot at the $10 million payday awaiting the winner of the FedEx Cup playoffs. For a handful of players, however, the focus is on a different number entirely: 30, as in becoming one of 30 players to advance to the season-ending Tour Championship.

Kevin Stadler, William McGirt and Jimmy Walker each enter this week’s BMW Championship outside the top 100 in the world ranking. None of the three men have ever won a PGA Tour event; none have played in a WGC event in the past five years, either. The trio have combined to make only five major championship appearances since 2008. This week, though, Stadler (32nd in FedEx Cup points), McGirt (39th) and Walker (46th) all are in position to potentially make the Tour Championship field. For these three, the BMW Championship represents an opportunity to gain access to a tournament system in which, oftentimes, the rich simply get richer.

Under the current setup, golf’s biggest events and the OWGR system create a somewhat vicious cycle. Players gain access to the game’s upper-tier tournaments thanks to a high world ranking; they attain a high ranking largely from playing in those same upper-tier tournaments, many of which carry increased OWGR point values, no 36-hole cut, or both. Outside of winning a Tour event, players can often have a tough time breaking the cycle and gaining access to some of golf’s more prestigious events.

Making the Tour Championship field, though, offers a loophole to players otherwise left on the outside looking in.

Aside from a healthy paycheck – Jonathan Byrd took home $128,000 in 2011 for finishing last – qualifying for the Tour Championship brings with it added benefits. Each of the 30 players at East Lake later this month are automatically qualified for the 2013 Masters, U.S. Open and British Open. They will also receive a spot in the WGC-Cadillac Championship next March.

For some of the game’s top players, these qualifications serve merely as an afterthought. For others, though, a week of good play at Crooked Stick has the potential to remake their schedule for next year. Such was the case last year for John Senden, who entered the playoffs ranked 94th in the world and 50th on the FedEx Cup points list. Spurred largely by a runner-up finish at the BMW Championship, Senden made the field at East Lake and ended the season 13th on the FedEx Cup points list. This year, he played in all three WGC tournaments for the first time in his career, appeared in all four majors, and had the flexibility to craft his schedule around the season’s biggest events.

Stadler, McGirt and Walker are among those in the field this week looking to follow in Senden’s footsteps. The three have combined for 425 career starts on Tour – none of which have been at The Masters. With four good rounds, each could leave Indianapolis this weekend with the knowledge that, in addition to transforming his 2013 schedule, he’ll be driving up Magnolia Lane next spring. So for the next four days, while winning always remains the goal, 30 will become the magic number.