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The Race Is On Vijay Singh's win at the Honda signaled the start of the stretch run for Augusta

March 22, 1999
March 22, 1999

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March 22, 1999

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The Race Is On Vijay Singh's win at the Honda signaled the start of the stretch run for Augusta

It was Feb. 16, 1992, and Lee Janzen's whirlwind of a day was
finally winding down. A relative unknown on Tour, Janzen had
just surprised nearly everyone in Tucson by closing with a 65 to
win for the first time. After he had donned the conquistador's
helmet that goes to the champion and finished all of the
obligatory interviews, Janzen's wife, Beverly, whispered
something into her weary husband's ear. "His whole body turned
liquid," she says, remembering the moment. "I thought he was
going to collapse." What had she whispered? These magical words:
"We're going to Augusta."

This is an article from the March 22, 1999 issue Original Layout

At this time of year the Tour has Georgia on its mind. The
players are looking ahead to the first major championship, which
is only three weeks away. Those with Masters invitations have
visions of green jackets dancing in their heads. Those who don't
are tossing and turning as the clock ticks down. The next few
weeks make up the home stretch in the race to Augusta, the last
three chances for uninvited guests to win a place at the table
with a Tour victory. This season the race has added meaning
because it's the last one. Due to new qualification criteria
that will go into effect in 2000, this is the final year a win
automatically qualifies a player for the Masters.

Nobody won a spot in Augusta last week at the windswept Honda
Classic in Coral Springs, Fla., because a player who had long
since qualified, PGA champ Vijay Singh, came out on top. Singh
reaffirmed that he ranks among the Tour's best, a fact that's
sometimes lost in this era of Tiger Woods and David Duval, by
collecting his eighth Tour title and his fifth in less than two
years. Singh's 11-under-par 277 was two better than runner-up
Payne Stewart, who finished second at the Honda for the fifth
time.

But the race to Augusta did have a major crash, by Eric Booker,
a game 35-year-old rookie whose tournament it was to win or lose
on Sunday. A pair of double bogeys on the final nine cost
Booker, especially an ugly one at the par-5 16th, where he lost
the lead for good by smothering his second shot, a two-iron,
into a bad lie in a fairway bunker from which he had no shot at
the green. Just like that, a potential birdie turned into a
double bogey, and a potential Masters contestant became another
TV viewer. "One guy yelled out at 15, 'See you at the Masters,'"
said Booker, who held a one-shot lead over Singh at the time but
wound up tied for third. "All kinds of thoughts go through your
head, but I didn't dwell on that."

Booker was in a heady position for most of the tournament. After
opening with a 65, he jumped into the lead with a 66 last Friday
and remained a step ahead of the pack until Sunday's meltdown.
He even beat reporters to the punch most days, sometimes opening
his sessions with the press by singing a song and once by asking
himself the first question. "I know--who is this Booker guy?"
said Booker.

He's a late starter who grew up in Pontiac, Mich., and became a
teaching pro at Warwick Hills, site of the Buick Open, to save
enough money to make a run at playing the Tour one day. Booker
is no country clubber. His dad worked in the cement business
before retiring and moving to Naples, Fla. "I could've been out
here eight years ago if I'd had the right financial backing,"
says Booker, who in '98 won a couple of Nike tour events and
enough money to get a shot at the big leagues, "but it really
doesn't matter when you get here. What matters is what you do
once you're here."

In one respect Booker is lucky to have made it as far as he has.
One night in Naples after Christmas, he was riding home on a
10-speed bicycle when he crashed into a construction area, flew
over the handlebars and landed in a ditch. "Actually, the
landing was a perfect 10," he says. "My body impression was
about three inches into the mud and I was looking up at the sky
saying, Beautiful, what did I just break? I'm getting ready to
play my rookie year, and I'm lying in a ditch. Pretty stupid."
Fortunately, Booker only bruised his left wrist, which
nonetheless contributed to his slow start on the West Coast.
(His best finish before the Honda was a 35th at the Buick
Invitational.) Augusta will just have to wait.

"I'll let you in on a secret," Joey Sindelar said
conspiratorially as he walked off the 18th green after shooting
71 in the opening round of last year's Honda Classic. "I just
played 18 holes with one thought in mind--my wife wants to go to
the Masters. She has begged me. She doesn't ask for much, but
she said she has to go back to the Masters. When I putted on
every hole, I thought, She wants to go to the Masters. Let's get
her there. There are no other tournaments that thrill me like
that."

Reminded of those comments last week as he walked off the same
green, this time after missing the cut, Sindelar had to laugh.
"You caught me at a pretty excitable moment last year," he said.
"Usually I think about hitting good shots, not about results.
Obviously, the Masters is in the back of my mind. I'm 40 and
want to go back there so bad. It's a fabulous place to have a
headache and get your hat handed to you. I love it."

It's a love affair that blossomed in 1985, when Sindelar won the
Greater Greensboro Open to qualify for his first Masters, which
was held the very next week. He had come from well back in the
pack on Sunday in Greensboro, so far back that TV viewers barely
caught a glimpse of him holing an eight-foot par putt at the
18th hole. "I sneaked in the back door," Sindelar says. "I
started the final round 16th, then all of a sudden stuff
happened."

In short order Sindelar was handed a Rolex watch, the winner's
trophy, one of those giant cardboard checks and, oh, yeah, he
got a phone call. "I was invited to the Masters," Sindelar says.
"I said, 'Oh, my gosh, I don't believe it.' The Masters seemed
so far away for me then, I hadn't even thought to wish for it."

Time is running out for a return to Augusta. Sindelar, whose
last Masters appearance was in '93, has to win at Bay Hill or
the Players Championship to earn a trip back. (He doesn't plan
to play in Atlanta the week before the Masters.)

Under the new entrance requirements, a pro will qualify in one
of the following ways: finish among the top 40 on the final '99
money list or in the top three on the list four weeks before the
Masters; place among the top 50 in the World Ranking at year's
end or four weeks before the Masters; win a major or the
Players; or be among the top 16 in the Masters, the top eight in
the U.S. Open or the top four in the PGA or the British Open the
previous year.

Only about 90 players make it. That's why the invitations are so
coveted and why Masters thoughts creep into a player's brain
whenever he has a chance to win.

That's what happened to Dicky Pride in 1991, when he was pretty
certain that he had Manny Zerman beat in their U.S. Amateur
semifinal (the two finalists are invited to the Masters). One
up, Pride put his drive in the fairway at 17, a par-5, while
Zerman found the rough. "Then I started thinking about Augusta,"
Pride says, shaking his head at the memory. "I laid up and made
double bogey. He beat me in extra holes."

Three years later, as a Tour rookie, Pride found himself in the
lead in Memphis with eight holes to play. "I did the same
f------ thing," Pride says. "All I'm thinking is, Damn, I can
win this thing and go to Augusta. So I hit a shot way over the
green and started screaming, 'Damn it! I can't believe I did it
again!' My caddie had no idea what I was talking about. He
thought I was nuts."

Pride eventually won the event, holing a long bomb to win a
playoff with Gene Sauers and Hal Sutton. Sutton had a putt to
tie, but missed. "When his putt slid past, I turned into Odo, the
alien on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the shape shifter who can
turn into liquid," Pride says. "That's what my knees did. I
started melting. I didn't have a moment to think before Gary
McCord was in my face with a CBS microphone saying, 'Dicky! What
about Augusta?'"

Pride hasn't finished among the top 200 on the money list in the
last two years and has never been back to Augusta. When he
played his way onto the weekend leader board last week--he
finished 15th--he said he knew better than to look ahead. "But
man," he says, smiling, "I'd love to go back."

So would Paul Stankowski, the play-your-way-to-Augusta king. He
was scraping around the Nike tour in 1996 until he won the
Louisiana Open. He arrived at the PGA Tour stop in Atlanta the
next week as the sixth alternate and left as the BellSouth
Classic champ, beating Brandel Chamblee in a playoff. Stankowski
was on his way to the Masters the following morning, after
making one very important inquiry about Augusta. "Is it on
I-20?" he asked. It is, he was assured.

"I was in a whirlwind," Stankowski says. "Every guy who stuck a
mike in my face or asked a question, I'd talk to him. I was
flattered to be asked. Plus, I'd hurt my neck that morning and
couldn't practice. It wasn't an ideal situation. I was injured,
dead tired and didn't have any time to prepare. I got there,
missed the cut and was done. The week went by so fast."

When Stankowski scooped up a handful of sand from a bunker at
Augusta National as a souvenir, he promised that next time he
would win his way in early enough to properly prepare. He did,
winning in Hawaii early in '97. In the following months he
watched old Masters highlights on the Golf Channel and, to get
used to Augusta's fast greens, practiced putting on the cement
floor in his garage. He tied for fifth. "Part of the fun is
preparing and being excited about playing there," Stankowski
says. "Knowing you're in at Augusta is a great feeling. It's
cool."

At the moment, Stankowski still needs a win to get in. He gave
himself a chance at the Honda, moving all the way to fifth on
the leader board on Friday. He fell back, though, in Saturday's
gusting winds and tied for 15th. "Just playing in Augusta isn't
a goal for me anymore," Stankowski said before heading north for
Orlando and this week's Bay Hill Invitational. "I want to get
there so I can play well again. I've got three more chances."

Asked to imagine an April without Augusta, Stankowski grimaced.
"Totally a bummer," he said.

The race, the last one to Augusta, is on.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND IN FULL SINGH Revving up for a run at the Masters, Vijay came from five shots back on Sunday to win for the fifth time in two years.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND ROOKIE MISTAKES Booker, in his first year on Tour, played like a veteran until the final three holes, on which he went four over.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND BOOTING HIS CHANCE Doug Barron, five off the lead after Saturday, closed with a 79 to end his dreams of a first-ever trip to Augusta.
"It really doesn't matter when you get out here," says Booker.
"What matters is what you do once you're here."
"I'm thinking, Damn, I can win this thing and go to Augusta,"
says Pride. "So I hit a shot way over the green and started
screaming."