A sad ending to the Fall Finish
Walking down the 18th fairway of the CordeValle Golf Club on Sunday with a 1-shot lead in the Frys.com Open, Jonas Blixt had many thoughts run through his head. A week earlier, the 28-year-old rookie from Sweden had a tie for third at Justin Timberlake's event in Las Vegas and had come very close to getting his first PGA Tour win.
At the beginning of the year, his primary goal had been simply to keep his card for the following season. And he had guaranteed that with three consecutive top-10s in May.
Now with a par, the former Florida State star could get a two-year exemption and an invitation to the Masters. It would be a perfect ending to his year with his friends and family in the gallery. From his home in Jacksonville, Fla., he could get to Magnolia Lane in four hours.
Blixt, who grew up playing hockey in the winter and golf in the summer, fought back thoughts of the Masters as he stood over his tee shot on the 72nd hole in San Martin, Calif. That drive up I-95 from Jacksonville to Augusta was all but assured after he found the fairway off the tee, and then made a 4-foot par putt to beat Tim Petrovic and Jason Kokrak by a shot.
Or so he thought.
Blixt wouldn't learn the sad truth until after the awards ceremony when his caddie, Zac Williamson, told him that his win didn't get him into the Masters. Turns out Fall Series winners don't automatically qualify for the game's most prestigious event because they don't award full FedEx Cup points.
"I just assumed that every winner got into Augusta," said Blixt, who became only the third rookie to win on tour in 2012. "I was a little devastated when my caddie told me I wasn't in."
Blixt still has a chance to make it into the field at the 2013 Masters. At 35th on the PGA Tour money list, he could earn his way in with good finishes this week at the McGladrey Classic and in the season finale Nov. 8-11 at Disney.
"Getting into the top 30 would be great," Blixt said. "I always dreamt of playing at Augusta It would really be cool if I keep playing well."
Blixt had four weeks off after not making it past the first two events of the FedEx Cup playoffs. So during his break, once a week he visited Randy Myers, his trainer, in Sea Island, Ga. When Blixt, who had rib injury earlier in the year, wasn't working out with Myers, he was playing the Seaside course, which is hosting the McGladrey Classic.
"I know the course pretty good," Blixt said. "It's a great golf course. Absolutely fabulous."
Blixt is just one of many players at the McGladrey Classic trying to score big at the end of the season. Peruse the PGA Tour money list and you'll find former PGA Tour winners such as Boo Weekley (121st), Billy Mayfair (125th), John Daly (141st) and Camilo Villegas (152nd) all trying to earn some job security this week.
Petrovic, who is 132nd on the money list, jumped 68 spots after his tie for second at the Frys.com Open. Before last week, the 46-year-old journeyman was destined for another year of splitting his time between the regular tour and the Web.com Tour. The former University of Hartford star, who once worked at a Pizza Hut while he sorted his game out on the mini tours, said he played the final round of the Frys as if it was a Monday qualifier. Now he has a chance to earn his full playing privileges for next year if he can leap inside the top 125 with a big performance down the stretch.
For a once can't-miss-kid like the 30-year-old Villegas, who won the Tour Championship in 2008, it will be very difficult without two top-10s for him to avoid having to go to Q-school. At least these Fall Series events give him a chance to salvage what has been a very disappointing year.
Starting in October 2013, the McGladrey Classic and the other Fall Series events will open the 2014 PGA Tour season and be allocated full FedEx Cup points. And all the players hovering around the top 125 will lose their exclusive right to bid for those all-exempt spots. Now the golfers from 126-200 on the tour -- after the FedEx Cup playoffs -- will play in a four-event tournament along with the top players on the Web.com Tour. At stake will be 50 PGA Tour cards for the following season.
I'll miss the Fall Series. Since its inception in 2007, it has been exciting to watch some of the best players in the world fight for their livelihoods. There will still be a good amount of drama in the new format. But I always saw the Fall Series as an insurance plan for the big tour guys who hadn't been so lucky in the first 40-odd weeks of the year, and for those who simply wanted to add something to their season like getting into the Masters by taking a place in the top 30 on the money list.
A Tim Petrovic could save his career, pay down some bills and extend the warranty on his regular tour life until he was old enough to play the Champions Tour. Blixt could, and did, become a PGA Tour winner.
For many, Q-school was the gravest consequence of a poor Fall Series. This punishment earned you the dubious honor of playing with a bunch young kids and retreads you didn't know very well for six cold days in late November and early December in either Florida or California.
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Blixt won't have to worry about any of that for at least another couple of years. He can just play golf and try to have fun. On Monday night, he hosted a victory celebration for 25 of his closest friends at one of his favorite local seafood restaurants in Jacksonville, where he put down copious amounts of his favorite drink.
"Monday night was huge," Blixt said. "I'm just happy I survived. I'm lucky I made it home."
On Tuesday night after arriving on St. Simons Island, Blixt had a more relaxed gathering at a Mexican restaurant with his caddie as well as his swing coach, Jorge Parada, who works at the Tour Academy in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Parada has helped Blixt build a more compact swing, and Williamson has been a friend, caddie and life coach, often peppering his boss with sometimes impenetrable quotes and an unquenchable thirst for all things good.
Blixt says his caddie of four years never has a bad day or wears the same pair of socks twice.
"Zac likes the feeling of wearing a new pair of socks every day," Blixt said. "But I think it's kind of wasteful, but if it makes him happy, he can do it."
Blixt doesn't want to be wasteful with his time or with his chances to get what he wants over these last two events of the year. Since getting over that rib injury and fixing some swing issues, he's playing some of the best golf of his life.
"I want to get to top 30 as soon as possible," Blixt said. "I need to make another $500,000. Then I really will be going to the Masters."