AUSTIN, Texas – In the moment, without any context whatsoever, it was a jarring revelation.
“It's kind of strange, in all my career I really never had to worry about my world ranking,” said Richard Bland, whose 5 o’clock shadow has far more salt than pepper.
It’s a jarring take because professional golfers live and die with the confusing tides of the world ranking. To earn a spot into this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play you needed to be inside the top 64 – or thereabouts depending on how many top players skipped the free-money stop. To earn one of the remaining spots into the Masters field, an interested party needs to be inside the top 50 on Monday.
The PGA Tour’s FedExCup list might dictate the distribution of tidy fortunes, but the good life in the play-for-pay ranks is inside the top 50 in the world ranking - and yet until recently, Bland, who at 49-years-young is the elder statesman at Austin Country Club, had never had much interest.
The harsh truth is, until last May there was no need.
In Bland’s 478th start on the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour), he won his first event at last year’s British Masters. It was emotional and heartwarming and endearing and, at least for Bland, eye-opening.
“It's been really weird,” he said. “I've had a guy sort of helping me with sort of permutations [with the ranking], and he's going like, It's probably best you don't play this week.
“I didn't play for three weeks and I think I went up seven spots. I was kind of thinking, well, if I don't play for the rest of the year, I might be world No. 1.”
The convoluted chill of the world ranking would rob Bland’s story of its humanity if not for the opportunities it offers. The math says that if Bland were to win Saturday’s Round 4 match against Dustin Johnson, he would likely move into the top 50 in the world and qualify for the Masters for the first time.
As someone who has a particular appreciation for longevity, the accomplishment hit Adam Scott in a personal way: “This game can be so brutal, and I'm sure there are times when he must have thought, why am I still doing it, and to persevere and then to win, and he's here this week playing well, it is something unique about our sport,” he said of Bland’s late-in-life arrival.
But earning his first trip to the Masters – where he would be the tournament’s oldest professional rookie – is only the destination. The journey is far more compelling.
It began in 1996 when he turned professional, and covers more than two decades of dogged dedication if not outright compulsion. He’s been to European Q-School eight times, most recently in 2011, and before his breakthrough at last year’s British Masters, he’d never ranked inside the top 100 in the world. It’s why he’d never spent much time thinking about the ranking.
Nor had he spent much time thinking about the Masters, until he befriended an Augusta National member and was able to play the course twice. There was a plan to play the storied course a third time until his brother, Heath, contracted a virus in 2018 and slipped into a coma. “He died twice,” Richard Bland said flatly.
But Heath recovered and the duo decided to make the trip to Augusta National together in March 2020, until a pandemic changed everyone’s plans.
Bland rescheduled to play the course on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, but again fate intervened and he qualified for the World Golf Championship, which is just his second Tour start in the United States.
“Pandemic and then this week because of, yeah, that's my bad, that one,” Richard Bland laughed.
Instead of enjoying a bucket-list two days with his brother at Augusta National this week, Bland has been grinding to secure an even more coveted tee time at the Masters.
Bland tied his opening match against Bryson DeChambeau in what was a textbook pillow fight with both players finishing the day at 1 over. The Englishman was much better on Day 2 with a 1-up victory over Talor Gooch, and he secured a spot in the Sweet 16 with a 2-and-1 victory over Lee Westwood on Friday. It seemed generationally apropos given that Bland and Westwood, 48, grew up playing junior golf together.
The math, which always ruins a good story, is still a bit too sketchy, but Bland figures he needs to beat Johnson to secure that long-awaited Masters invitation, although there’s a chance he’s already earned enough points to move inside the top 50.
“If I get there, I think that would, with the 12 months that I've had, be a pretty nice sort of cherry on the top,” said Bland with a weary smile.
There’s a compelling honesty to Bland that goes beyond the journeyman storybook. Following a professional lifetime of far more misses than makes, it would be easy, natural even, to lament all those opportunities lost.
That would, however, require a degree of regret. Not the kind of regret that cause one to second-guess career choices, but certainly the kind that sparks the occasional dark moment. Over 20-plus years it seems certain Bland endured those questions, but when asked if he ever doubted his choices the smile quickly fades.
“Never. Never,” he said. “Even when I lost my card in 2018, I always kind of thought one year doesn't make you a bad player, you don't become a bad player overnight. I knew that I wasn't done.”
Based on the last few months, it appears Bland is just getting started with a Masters invitation looming. However this chapter unfolds, there was one certainty: Heath Bland will get his day at Augusta National. “We’ll get there,” Bland promised.