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The Race Is On
Gary Van Sickle
March 22, 1999
Vijay Singh's win at the Honda signaled the start of the stretch run for Augusta
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March 22, 1999

The Race Is On

Vijay Singh's win at the Honda signaled the start of the stretch run for Augusta

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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."

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 imitations 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-516th, 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."

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