Area pros struggle with qualifications

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There is always Larry Mize.

The native Augustan and 1987 Masters Tournament winner has a lifetime exemption to the annual major at Augusta National Golf Club, but he might be starving for some local company in next year's event.

Mize is currently the only locally affiliated golfer qualified for the 2009 Masters, raising the potential for him to be the area's lone representative for the first time since 2000.

Augusta native Charles Howell has played in six consecutive Masters since 2002. Hephzibah High and Augusta State grad and current Evans resident Vaughn Taylor has played three in a row since 2006. Thomson native Franklin Langham competed in 2001.

None of them are in for next season, and only Howell is within reasonable striking distance.

"It's not where I wanted to be but it's not frustrating either because I still have a chance," said Howell, who currently ranks 70th on the PGA Tour money list and 95th in the world rankings. "My game is starting to show a little bit of form with some of the results I've had lately."

The closest local contender for the Masters next year, however, isn't one of the usual PGA Tour suspects but an Englishman. Former Augusta State golfer Oliver Wilson is knocking on the door of his first Masters invitation with the No. 52 ranking in the world. The rookie on the European Ryder Cup team in September needs to climb at least two spots before the year's end to earn his first trip to the Masters.

"The Ryder Cup was the thing I most wanted to achieve this year and I did it," Wilson said. "The Masters is the next thing. It's massive for me."

The day after the Ryder Cup ended, Wilson turned his attention to qualifying for the major in the town where he went to school from 2000-03 and kept a residence until 2006. He was No. 47 in the world at the time and has been floating in and out of the top-50 bubble for months. To say that Augusta has been on his mind would be an understatement.

"My schedule is going to be completely around getting in the Masters," said Wilson, who was a three-time All-American for the Jaguars. "If I need to not play again so my world ranking doesn't fall, I will do that. I'll do whatever I can to get in that tournament. It's my second home. I want to be there."

Wilson has played in only one European Tour event since the Ryder Cup, tying for 40th at the Dunhill Links Championship. He withdrew from the Portugal Masters last week after only eight holes with an inflamed muscle in has neck that has been bothering him off-and-on for five years.

Wilson tentatively plans to play in three November events in Asia -- the HSBC Champions, Singapore Open and Hong Kong Open. His first flirtation with victory came in the 2006 event in Shanghai, China, when he lost in a playoff to Paul Casey.

Wilson also typically plays in the two South African events in December -- the Dunhill Championship and South African Open, where he finished runner-up last year.

"I've got to plan my schedule well," Wilson said. "I've learned this year that you can't afford to waste tournaments with the world rankings. Where I am right now I can't really afford to do that. I'm in a good position because I'm not going to lose many more points before the end of the year."

Wilson is ranked ninth in the European Tour's Order of Merit heading into next week's season-ending Volvo Masters at Valderrama, Spain.

"I want to finish top 10 in the Order of Merit and set myself up for a good year next year, too," he said of an achievement that will exempt him into events including next year's WGC at Doral and the U.S. Open.

The only local player who rivals Wilson in motivation and potential to reach the Masters is Howell. It is the most important event of the year for him and one he desperately doesn't want to miss.

To that end, Howell has played in four of the five Fall Series events so far and plans to compete in the final two in Florida with the singular goal of climbing into the top 30 on the season-ending money list to claim a Masters berth.

"That would be the easiest way for me to get into it," Howell said. "Obviously my No. 1 reason for playing all of these is to get in the Masters for next year."

Howell could have made it a lot easier on himself three weeks ago when he was the 54-hole leader at the Turning Stone Resort Championship -- which boasted the largest purse in the Fall Series and paid $1.08 million to the winner. A victory would have moved Howell to 28th on the money list, but he struggled to a Sunday 73 and tied for third.

It was the second time this season Howell failed to win after holding the lead through three rounds and fourth time in his career.

"It was just nice to be in that position again," Howell said. "I hadn't been in that position since May in Atlanta. I guess the best thing I can take from it is that I didn't play very well on Sunday and still managed to finish third.

"I hung in there a lot better than I played."

Howell will probably have to win one of the last two events or finish some combination of second and third in both to make up the more than $650,000 needed to leap 40 spots into the top 30.

If Howell doesn't make it, he will have the first three months of next year to either win a PGA Tour event or climb into the top 50 in the world ranking published the week before the Masters after the conclusion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

The good news for Howell is he was in that situation at the start of in 2007 and played his way into the Masters with a torrid start that included a victory at Riviera. He also earned his way into a PGA Tour card through limited sponsors exemptions in 2001, so handling that kind of deadline pressure is nothing new to him.

"I wish I would have learned from then and not put myself in this position again," Howell said. "But a positive way to look at it is I have done it before. I've never been one to lack on intensity or drive, but it seems to be I have played well when my back's been up against a wall a little bit. That's something I'm definitely thinking about and hopefully I can do it one more time this time."

The 30th spot on the money list is currently held by Brian Gay, who spent a brief period of his childhood living in Louisville, Ga., and still has some immediate family in the area. The 50th spot in the world rankings is currently held by Scott Verplank, whose in-laws hail from Aiken.

As for the other local golfers with Masters experience, the odds of earning an invitation for next year range from remote to nil.

Taylor -- who led the Masters late Saturday in 2007 -- has the bigger issue of trying to secure his PGA Tour card for next season, much less an invitation to his local event.

Taylor, who played on the 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup team, was 126th on the money list before missing the cut Friday in Arizona and has two Florida events left to climb into the top 125 or face Q-school or conditional status.

Langham has long been out of the Masters picture with injuries, hasn't made a cut in 13 Nationwide Tour starts this season. He hasn't played since early August.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

MASTERS PROBABLES


THRU TOP 50 WORLD RANKING


15. Justin Rose (England)


26. Rory Sabbatini (South Africa)


27. Luke Donald (England)


28. Stephen Ames (Canada)


29. Aaron Baddeley (Australia)


32. Ross Fisher (England)


33. Graeme McDowell (N. Ireland)


36. Martin Kaymer (Germany)

MASTERS BUBBLE


Thru top 50 in the final 2008


world ranking


42. Soren Hansen (Denmark)


43. Shingo Katayama (Japan)


44. Woody Austin (U.S.)


49. Fredrik Jacobson (Sweden)


50. Scott Verplank (U.S.)


52. Oliver Wilson (England)


56. Brendan Jones (Australia)


58. Jeev Milkha Singh (India)


59. J.B. Holmes (U.S.)


60. Richard Green (Australia)


61. Peter Hanson (Sweden)


62. Darren Clarke (N. Ireland)

THRU TOP 30 ON THE FINAL 2008


PGA TOUR MONEY LIST


29. J.B. Holmes (U.S.)


30. Brian Gay (U.S.)


34. Woody Austin (U.S.)


37. Jeff Quinney (U.S.)


39. Dustin Johnson (U.S.)


40. Steve Marino (U.S.)


41. Bart Bryant (U.S.)


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