Cinderella story at the Masters? The clock's about to strike midnight

By Scott Michaux
Published on
Cinderella story at the Masters? The clock's about to strike midnight

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Nearly three full months into 2016 with the deadline for gaining entry into the Masters Tournament fast approaching, only one professional in the world has booked a late spot at Augusta National Golf Club.

Vaughn Taylor.

That's right. The lone 2016 field addition from the best pros across the globe is the Hephzibah/Augusta State grad who had no full status on any tour in January. With his stunning victory at Pebble Beach in February, Taylor earned the right to drive about seven miles from his home in Evans to Magnolia Lane in two weeks.

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Michigan State losing to a No. 15 seed was more predictable than that. And the odds are pretty good that Taylor might stay the only one. An 11th-hour winner in next week's Shell Houston Open might be the last best hope for some lucky unqualified player to join Taylor in Augusta.

This week's WGC Match Play marks the last chance for players to gain entry into the Masters via the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings. Since the new year started, that magic threshold has been as impenetrable as an encrypted iPhone.

Seven players loitering outside the top-50 bubble are among the 64 set to compete in round-robin pool play beginning Wednesday at Austin Country Club. The only real chance any of them will have of climbing into the top 50 is at least winning one of the 16 pools to reach the knockout rounds. For most of them, a deep run is essential to gain the world ranking points necessary. Short of that, the only hope for anyone else is winning in Houston on the eve of Masters Week.

The lucky seven contenders queued up for last call are South Africa's Jaco Van Zyl (No. 52), Spain's Rafael Cabrera-Bello (54), Belgium's Thomas Pieters (57), Australians Marcus Fraser (62) and Matt Jones (63), American Patton Kizzire (65) and Denmark's Thorbjorn Olesen (66).

As the lowest seeds in their respective pools, the odds are stacked against each of them. Van Zyl has the most realistic chance, simply needing to win his pool against the rugged trio of Danny Willett, Brooks Koepka and Billy Horschel to reach the top 50.

Cabrera-Bello and Pieters need to reach at least the quarterfinals. The other four will have to make it at least to the semifinals to have a chance of crashing the Masters.

Since the world rankings were implemented as a qualifying criteria in 1999 and the automatic winners were reinstated in 2008, there has never been such a scarcity of qualifiers in the early months leading up to the Masters. Taylor and 16-year-old Latin America Amateur winner Paul Chaplet of Costa Rica are the only two players to qualify since 15 top-50 players locked in at the end of 2015.

In fact, there's been a presumed net loss of one in the expected number of starters since the year began -- a figure that could reach minus-three if qualifiers Willett and Kevin Streelman have to withdraw late for paternity leave. Tiger Woods (back), Jim Furyk (wrist) and Jose Maria Olazabal (undisclosed) are all sidelined while they recover from injuries. Sangmoon Bae was already out because of a two-year military service requirement in his native South Korea.

Unless someone makes a surprise run this week or grabs the last golden ticket in Houston, the Masters field could dip below 90 for the first time since 89 teed it up in 2002.

It has been a remarkable set of circumstances that led to this dearth of latecomers. In NCAA Tournament parlance, they'd call 2016 "straight chalk."

In 10 punch-your-ticket PGA Tour events since January, only Taylor played the role of Cinderella by beating favorite Phil Mickelson at Pebble Beach. Winners in the other nine include past Masters champions Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott (twice), Bubba Watson and Charl Schwartzel; major winners Jason Day and Jason Dufner; and already qualified past tour winners Brandt Snedeker, Hideki Matsuyama and Fabian Gomez.

For whatever reason, few outsiders have been able to close and clinch like Taylor. North Augusta/USC Aiken's Scott Brown got blown away in the wind at Torrey Pines. Native Augustan Charles Howell couldn't summon a Sunday charge in Tampa.

Habitual groomsman Kevin Chappell let go of the latest opportunity, heading to the final hole at Bay Hill with a one-shot lead before playing the hole so cautiously he settled for a bogey. Day simultaneously birdied the 17th to inherit the lead at the 18th tee and won with a sand-save par on the last to deny Chappell.

The rest of the world hasn't offered too many openings for top-50 climbers either, with most of the marquee victories on the global European Tour being gobbled up by already established qualifiers like Rickie Fowler, Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen, Schwartzel and Willett.

Only Van Zyl even temporarily penetrated the border, reaching No. 49 three weeks ago after a victory in the Sunshine Tour's Eye of Africa PGA Championship.

That earned him a coveted spot in the WGC event at Doral the next week, where precious no-cut points were available for just showing up.

Van Zyl, however, chose not to make the trip from South Africa to south Florida due to the distance. Anything in the top half at Doral would have kept him inside the Official World Golf Ranking top 50 and a high finish might have secured his first trip to the Masters. Instead he slipped two spots to 51st while watching at home and put pressure on himself to make something happen in the Match Play.

Match play is unpredictable, but getting out of their respective round-robin pools is going to require an upset.

Cabrera-Bello must deal with top-20 PGA Tour winners Matsuyama and Kevin Kisner. Pieters drew a group with the red-hot Scott.

The rest have at least one top-20 major winner to contend with atop their pools: Olesen (Rory McIlroy), Kizzire (Watson), Fraser (Zach Johnson) and Jones (Oosthuizen).

Straight chalk might leave Vaughn Taylor standing alone in the pro Class of '16 photo.

This article was written by Scott Michaux from The Augusta Chronicle, Ga. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.