ATLANTA – One hundred thirty-eight miles of open road separate East Lake Golf Club from Magnolia Lane and the front gates of Augusta National, but the connection is much closer. This can be credited directly to Bobby Jones, the legendary career amateur who called East Lake his home course and later helped found the famous club to the east.
But there’s a modern day connection between the clubs, too. Any player who qualifies for the Tour Championship at East Lake is rewarded with, among other perks, an invitation into the next year’s Masters Tournament. For the usual suspects with singular household names like Tiger and Phil, it doesn’t matter. They’ve already qualified for next April’s festivities a dozen times over.
For others, though, reaching this week’s field is a means to an end.
Graham DeLaet, Brendon De Jonge and Roberto Castro will each make their maiden pilgrimage to Augusta next year based on inclusion within the top 30 players in the FedEx Cup standings entering the season finale.
Call it a domino effect – or at least the next step in progressing to a higher level in golf’s hierarchy.
This week, these three players will compete for the $10 million grand prize for prevailing in the playoffs, where even last-place reaps a guaranteed paycheck. Indirectly, there are unforeseen benefits. In addition to qualifying for the Masters, players are also guaranteed a spot in the U.S. Open, Open Championship and WGC-Cadillac Championship fields, meaning they are able to set a schedule prior to the season and prepare for it. If nothing else, it helps a guy’s comfort level.
For DeLaet, de Jonge and Castro, three players still seeking a first career PGA Tour victory, such an advantage can prove invaluable. These are their stories.
When it comes to the perks of reaching his first Tour Championship, Graham DeLaet doesn’t mince words about which one means the most.
“It’s been a dream since I was a kid,” the Canadian says of qualifying for his first Masters. “I remember watching Weirsy [Mike Weir] win the Masters in ’03. I was at an Idaho State tournament in Pocatello, Idaho, and it was the coolest thing. That’s always been my favorite sporting event of the year to watch, over the Super Bowl or Stanley Cup playoffs. There’s something special about it – and to be playing in it is going to be unreal.”
He didn’t waste any time getting in, either.
DeLaet all but assured himself a berth in the field at East Lake with a share of second place at The Barclays, the first of four playoff events. He added a solo third for good measure one week later at the Deutsche Bank Championship and now finds himself ranked 33rd in the world and in prime position to join the game’s elite level.
“More than anything, I can pick a schedule next year, which will be really nice,” he explains. “There will be no surprises that pop up, like when I got into the Open Championship this year. So I can kind of plan around that a little bit more. Obviously all the majors and if I can retain my world ranking, the World Golf events. Hopefully that can snowball into big things for me.”
If it does, he’ll remember that it all started with getting into this week’s event, part of a season-long plan to set himself up for the future.
“This is kind of the goal coming into the year. Make it to Atlanta. To have a chance to win the FedEx Cup is even better.”
Brendon de Jonge understands the importance of qualifying for some big-time events.
Now in his sixth PGA Tour season, de Jonge has made the cut in every major championship he’s played. That’s the good news. The downside is that his entire major career has included four starts in the PGA Championship and one in the U.S. Open.
That will change next year, thanks to him squeaking into the Tour Championship at No. 27 in the current standings.
“This sets up a lot of things for next year, it opens up a lot of doors,” he says. “You get into a lot of tournaments that you wouldn’t have necessarily gotten into. That’s the biggest thing.”
For a guy who owns 22 career top-10 finishes without claiming any hardware, being able to plot a schedule around tournaments he picks rather than ones which are essentially picked for him could be the difference-maker.
“I hope so. It feels like it, it feels like my career is heading in the right direction. I haven’t won yet, I’ve had a lot of chances, but yeah, it does; it feels like it’s all building up to something.”
More than perhaps anyone else in this week’s field, Roberto Castro isn’t looking ahead.
A product of Georgia Tech who now makes his home 15 minutes from East Lake, he maintains that competing here means as much as playing in the Masters.
“It’s kind of hard to say, but I think playing in this tournament is at least as big an accomplishment,” Castro explains. “Only 30 players and no invitations, straight off the points, earn your way in. But it might be different when I roll down Magnolia Lane.”
He laughs at the insinuation that he could make that 138-mile trip eastward more frequently than many of his fellow competitors.
“I guess that’s how it works, right? If you want to – within reason – play a few practice rounds, you can do that? I don’t know,” he says. “I’ll put some miles on that car. I’m not scared.”
And yes, like DeLaet and de Jonge, he knows the ability to plan ahead should serve him well.
“It’s going to be very nice,” he continues. “This year, I got to play in a lot of great tournaments, but some of them were uncertain at the beginning of the year, so I was kind of chasing it a little bit. Next year I’ll be able to know my schedule.
“When you first get on Tour, it’s so exciting. Then you start to see, OK, next step is to get into the majors and WGCs, then hopefully start contending and who knows. But it is a big step.”
Neither DeLaet nor de Jonge nor Castro may win the Masters next year. Or the U.S. Open or Open Championship, for that matter.
Landing in the field at East Lake doesn’t directly guarantee success, but it does clear the path to a successful journey.
When one of them – or all three – breaks through for his first PGA Tour win, then starts contending for majors, very few people will look back on competing in the Tour Championship as what spurred such growth. With players of this caliber, it’s often an underrated checkpoint on that road toward greater progression.