So Near But So Far: Holmes Misses A Masters Spot By 20 Inches

If J.B. Holmes had made a putt from one foot, eight inches on the 17th hole at Walt Disney World’s Magnolia Course on Sunday at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic, he would be in the field for the 2011 Masters. It was only his eighth hole of a round he started on the back nine, but the missed tap-in proved costly as Holmes finished one stroke too high to move into the top 30 on the final PGA Tour money list, and thereby lacks a Masters invitation.

Holmes still could have made it with a par on his 72nd hole, the ninth. But he hit his approach shot into a greenside bunker, came out poorly to the fringe, and made a bogey. As a result, he might earn the unofficial and unwanted title of Best Player Not In The Masters Field for the second year in a row next April. That was one of the key results at the PGA Tour’s season-ending event at Walt Disney World, where spots in the coveted top 30, top 125, and top 150 were determined.

Holmes entered the tournament 31st on the money list, needing to finish in the top 30 to secure a spot in the Masters. He was a mere $1,439 out of the 30th spot held by Heath Slocum. With nobody else from outside the top 30 making a move to play their way into it, the battle was joined between those two.

Holmes started the final round two strokes ahead of Slocum, and still held that margin until his closing stumbles left him with a 72. Slocum shot a final-round 70 to finish tied for 45th with Holmes and others, securing a Masters spot by that $1,439 margin. Slocum, also finishing his round on the difficult par-four ninth hole, sank a seven-foot par putt to preserve his place in the top 30.

“I did know that every shot mattered. I was grinding out there,” said Slocum, who, like Holmes, did not make the field for the Tour Championship that ends the FedExCup portion of the schedule and thus did not earn a Masters bid that way.

Holmes made a quick exit from the course, complaining of a sore shoulder he had suffered before the third round.

The sore shoulder and missed tiddler weren’t the only things keeping Holmes out of the Masters for now (he still has a chance to make it if he wins a tournament or moves into the top 50 in the world ranking before the Masters). There were naturally many points during the season where he could have another $1,500 with a putt here or there. But a couple of rounds were especially costly.

He shot a final-round 78 at the BMW Championship, the next-to-last event in the FedExCup playoffs, when a 71 would have earned him enough FedEx points to make the Tour Championship and a guaranteed paycheck. Also, he was tied for third after two rounds of the PGA Championship before shooting a 77 at Whistling Straits. And at Disney, he made a triple bogey on the 18th hole in the third round.

Holmes was a near-miss for the Masters field this April. The 2008 Ryder Cupper was coming off a lackluster 2009, but he just missed a win at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am this February, finishing one stroke behind Dustin Johnson, and tied for third at the Northern Trust Open that same month. Those showings helped move him up to 58th on the world ranking, not quite good enough to make the Masters.

Holmes entered the FedExCup playoffs 18th on the points list, but with the standings more tightly bunched after a points reset a missed cut at The Barclays and his poor finish at the BMW were costly as he ended up 34th to miss by four spots. The long-hitting Kentuckian was still inside the top 30 on the money list at that point, giving him a second chance for the Masters. He played in three of the five events of the Fall Series but middle-of-the-pack finishes in all of them weren’t enough. Slocum won the McGladrey Classic in October, and while Fall Series wins don’t earn an automatic Masters bid it did ultimately pay off in a top-30 spot.

The top 40 on the money list used to get Masters invitations until the coming of the FedExCup four years ago. The Masters bowed to the PGA Tour by inviting the top 30 from the playoffs, which this year included such players as Kevin Streelman and Kevin Na. It kept the money-list qualification in recognition of season-long performance, but cut the number to 30 in order to avoid having too large a field.

With so many ways to get into the Masters, it’s hard to find comparable PGA Tour players to Holmes who fell through the cracks. The next best player might be Kenny Perry. That’s a sad situation, considering that Perry so nearly won the Masters in 2009, but it can’t really be said that he did enough in 2010 to earn a bid (his world ranking of 60th is based mostly on points from 2009). After that, notable missing players are David Toms and Scott Verplank.

Among international players, Spain’s Alvaro Quiros is still on the outside, but at 53rd in the world ranking and the season-ending event on the European Tour remaining to be played he still has a chance to move into the top 50.

Holmes’ world ranking has dropped to 65th, so the 2010 money list offered his best chance. He’ll need a strong start in 2011 to move into the top 50 in time for the Masters (or a win would do the trick).

The battle for the top 125 and a PGA Tour exemption for 2011 had some interesting permutations. As it worked out, there was a gap of about $33,0000 between 125th and 126th. So, for the players who entered the tournament around 125th on the list, it wasn’t a matter of shaving off one stroke from their rounds. Instead, their fate rested mostly on the shoulders of Roland Thatcher and Johnson Wagner, who had the chance to vault from well back on the money list by finishing first or second (or solo third in Wagner’s case) but otherwise would have finished outside the top 125. And, even, as it worked out, it rested on Spencer Levin, who himself was comfortably inside the top 125.

Wagner made a bid with a final-round 67, but it included a double bogey on the 16th hole that dropped him into a tie for third. He finished 126th.

Thatcher entered the final round with a four-stroke lead and still led by two after 11 holes. But he coughed up the lead to eventual winner Robert Garrigus with three-putt bogeys from 25-foot range on the 12th and 16th. Then a bogey on the 17th dropped him into a tie for second with Levin, putting him in real danger. But when Levin took three to get down from the fringe for a bogey on the 18th, Thatcher was given new life.

After leaving his 42-foot birdie putt five feet, two inches from the hole, another three-putt loomed for Thatcher, and this one would have been disastrous. But he made the putt and his solo second moved him from 179th to 122nd on the money list.

That putt knocked Wagner out of the top 125. (Wagner, nonetheless will probably get 15 to 20 starts next year as a non-exempt player. The top-150 cut-off is a more drastic one as it costs a player his card. Brett Wetterich was the loser there on Sunday as he shot a closing 73 to finish tied for 17th in the tournament and fail to advance into the top 150.)

Meanwhile, Troy Merritt claimed the 125th spot thanks to Wagner’s double bogey (not to mention $1 million for winning the Kodak Challenge, based on performance on select holes during the year, in a playoff over Rickie Fowler and Aaron Baddeley, to cap a great day). Briny Baird would have made the top 125 if Wagner had shot worse than a 67 and Thatcher missed the putt on the 18th, but he ended up 127th. He’s all too familiar with that position, having finished 126th in 2005.

Wagner might have been speaking for everyone after the round when he said, “I’m about to break right now.”

“I couldn’t imagine a more stressful moment in my life,” said Thatcher. “You’ll never see a happier guy who threw away a tournament than I am.”

Or an unhappier guy after a 45th-place finish than Holmes.

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