Only 85 qualifying days left before the Masters Tournament starts, and Sunday illustrated just how intense the chase for invitations can be for gifted golfers with local connections.
One talented young Georgia Bulldog, from Macon, Ga., didn’t have to wait very long to secure his lifelong dream of qualifying for the Masters, while two others with Augusta roots could only get frustratingly close to their annual goal.
Russell Henley, the energetic rookie making his PGA Tour debut as a member, put on a putting clinic that belied his inner terror to win the Sony Open in Hawaii with a record 24-under par score. Henley birdied the last five holes to hold at bay a charging Tim Clark as well as Augusta native Charles Howell.
It was yet another coming-out performance by the former Bulldog All-American, who first signaled his impending success with memorable amateur performances in U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach and Congressional and by winning a Nationwide Tour event in 2011 in front of his college friends in Athens, Ga., while still playing for Georgia.
Yet Henley said he was “10 times as nervous as I’ve ever been” as a Sunday frontrunner. Despite his claims of being “speechless” after his Masters qualifying victory, he had plenty to say about fulfilling his dream.
“I was trying not to think about Augusta out there,” he said. “I just kept telling myself this is a long year, you’re going to play this game for a long time, be patient, and it doesn’t have to happen now. Just everything I could to psych myself out of thinking about winning. It worked.”
But Augusta has been on Henley’s mind since he made annual trips to the Masters as a kid – eating doughnuts at Krispy Kreme and walking the famous course with one of his junior golf buddies.
“I remember we would walk up to the ropes and we’d touch the grass with our hands,” he said. “I remember seeing these rolling hills of green and seeing the guys hit the shots and just being so amazed at the whole experience – the smell, the environment of it. And being so close to home, it was just the biggest deal for me just to get to go. That’s why I think it was
really hard for me to block that out because that’s something … I probably think about the Masters a few times a day.”
Henley wasn’t the only one on the Waialae leaderboard who thinks obsessively about Augusta. Howell has had the chance to play eight times in his hometown major, but after qualifying in 2012 to end a three-year drought he’s more determined than ever to get back in April.
But despite shooting 66 on Sunday to finish third and posting his lowest 72-hole score of his career (17-under 263), Howell’s Masters chase continues. Unlike some of his six prior top-five finishes in Hawaii, Howell never had a chance to chase down Henley unless he shot 59.
Clark birdied seven of the last 11 holes and couldn’t reel Henley in.
“It was a tough task today to try to catch these guys,” Howell said. “In looking at the leaderboard early, Russell didn’t falter one bit.”
Hawaii’s Georgia-centric leaderboard also featured Yellow Jacket Matt Kuchar and Bulldogs Chris Kirk and Harris English among the top 10.
About 12 hours earlier another local drama played out halfway around the world.
In a European Tour field in Durban, South Africa, filled with some prominent major winners, former Augusta State star Scott Jamieson was trying to fulfill his own Masters dreams with a continued run of success.
Just a month after his maiden win at another Durban club, Jamieson held a five-shot lead heading into Sunday’s final round. The 29-year-old from Glasgow, Scotland, seemed poised to stake a strong position in his Augusta quest with two quick birdies, but a double bogey on the fifth hole derailed his momentum and confidence. He failed to birdie any of the three remaining par 5s.
“The double bogey was a kick in the teeth, but I had tons of chances and couldn’t take them,” Jamieson said.
A bogey on 16 and an eagle chip that ran out of steam two inches short of the hole on the last left him one shot shy of forcing a playoff with 2012 Masters runner-up Louis Oosthuizen.
With his finishes of first, third and second in the South African swing, Jamieson is the early leader on the European Tour’s Race to Dubai standings.
“I’ll take that – absolutely,” he said, though that doesn’t help him in the race to the Masters.
Jamieson would have jumped to 48th in the world rankings with a win – assuring a spot in the WGC Match Play and probably Doral – but instead settled at No. 72 and a resumed quest toward the top 50 necessary to gain entrance to his collegiate hometown major.
“I attended college at Augusta State and have played Augusta National five times,” Jamieson said on Saturday. “So to go back there and compete in the Masters would be really special – but that is a long way down the road and I am staying in the present.”
Twelve weeks remain to qualify for the Masters, and the pressure only figures to get more intense.