HUMBLE, Texas – Matt Jones never wanted to visit Augusta National until he won or earned his way there.
He just didn’t imagine the journey would end this dramatically.
The 33-year-old Australian drained a 46-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole in regulation, then holed a 42-yard pitch shot on the first playoff hole to defeat Matt Kuchar, win the Shell Houston Open and earn the final win-and-you’re-in exemption into the year’s first major.
“When I saw it disappear,” Jones said afterward, “it was probably the happiest I’ve been on the golf course.”
And talk about timing: There is no better way to kick off Masters week than by seeing Jones hole a long, meandering chip shot that instantly recalled Larry Mize’s famous hole-out in 1987.
On this one, Jones actually called his shot. Walking up to his ball short of the right greenside bunker, he told his caddie, Scott McGuinness, that he was about to hole the chip – just as he had told his looper that he was going to birdie the final hole in regulation.
After all, Jones was two strokes down heading to his final hole after a bogey on 17. But after a long iron that barely crawled onto the front edge, he buried a 46-foot, double-breaking birdie putt that put the pressure back on Kuchar.
Known as a brilliant game-manager, Kuchar opted against a bailout right on his second shot on 18. Alas, he tugged his hybrid from 216 yards into the water short and left of the green, and he needed to get up and down from 64 yards just to make bogey and force the playoff.
“I was looking to try and make 4 and win the tournament,” said Kuchar, but he wound up watching Jones steal the title with the shot of the year.
After laying up from the fairway bunker, Jones described his chip shot thusly: “I just had to land it into a little bit of a bank just to kill it with some spin, and then it just had to get on top of the ridge and let gravity and the slope do the rest.”
Said McGuinness: “To get that shot close, he was doing well. To hole it? Remarkable.”
Now, after a closing 66, Jones is headed to his first Masters, a berth he was denied seven months ago.
The Australian thought he had made a 6-foot putt on the final hole at the BMW Championship, but his ball caught the edge of the cup and spun out. Two other players made 15-foot putts on the final green to leave Jones on the outside looking in, at No. 32 in FedEx Cup points. (The top 30 earn a spot in both the Tour Championship and Masters.)
“It’s sweet justice that we’re there now,” McGuinness said.
After the BMW, Jones said he wasn’t too bummed about the close call, though.
“There’s always a way to get back to Augusta,” he said.
With no Masters invitation in hand, Jones was planning to head back to Australia next week to play with his 2-year-old and 3-week-old kids. He also had a doctor’s appointment to examine a long-standing back issue.
Jones has a herniated disk in his thoracic (upper) spine and a couple of bulging disks. He’s been dealing with the problem since he was 17; it forced him to withdraw from last year’s Canadian Open, and the discomfort was so bad earlier this week that he considered pulling out of the Wednesday pro-am.
“It got better (as the week went on),” Jones said, smiling.
Added McGuinness, with a laugh: “He doesn’t need the epidural. He’s fine.”
Bad back or not, Jones always believed it was a matter of when, not if, he would win on the PGA Tour, even though he didn’t have much experience slamming the door.
Jones, No. 90 in the world, never won on the Web.com Tour. He wasn’t a prolific winner in Australia. On Sunday, he remembered only capturing a small California State Open.
Yet, McGuinness said, “To me, this will be a big breakthrough. I don’t think he’ll stop winning. He’s been knocking on the door for a long time. For it to happen, I think he’ll really kick forward.”
For now, he and his man are kicking forward to Augusta. They finally earned their way there.