THE LAST stage of Masters qualifying was completed on Sunday, although you may know it as the Shell Houston Open, a title that suddenly seems archaic since the tournament felt more like the Masters undercard.
Officials did all they could to dress up Redstone Golf Club like Augusta National, the better to entice top players to stop by as a tune-up for this week's big azalea festival. The putting surfaces were quick and immaculate. The fairways were short and fast and mowed from the greens back toward the tees for that signature Augusta look. The rough—strike that, second cut—was little more than long fringe, just like the high grass at the club that Bobby Jones built. There was no Amen Corner, but the Houston Golf Association officials did belt out a hallelujah when Phil Mickelson showed up and gushed over the conditions. When you closed your eyes, did it feel like Augusta National? "If you had 15,000 more pine trees and 15,000 more people," answered Fred Couples, a former Houston and Masters champion.
O.K., it wasn't a perfect replica, but it was enough to put Georgia on your mind a week early. Take Johnson Wagner. In his second year on Tour the rising 28-year-old golfer jumped out to a tie for the lead by matching Adam Scott's opening 63, then spent the rest of the week dealing with the pressure of having to go wire-to-wire for his first PGA Tour victory. The last thing he needed was to think about the added cherry of a Masters invite. Still, on Saturday night after the Final Four games were over, Wagner was there in his RV watching a Masters replay on Golf Channel. "My wife came in and said, 'What are you doing watching the Masters?'" Wagner said. "And I thought, Good point."
Not to worry. Katie Wagner's husband played solid golf on Sunday, holding off Geoff Ogilvy and Chad Campbell and holing clutch par putts on the final two holes to clinch the win (16-under 272), pick up a coveted two-year exemption and, oh, yeah, earn an 11th-hour green ticket. The Wagners canceled a beach vacation, arranged for someone to drive their RV to Augusta and didn't worry about Masters badges. "I've banned everyone around me from even using the word Masters, so I haven't heard much about it," Katie said shortly after her husband's win.
Wagner at Augusta is like Cinderella in a green jacket. Born in Amarillo, Texas, he moved to Nashville at age 7 and suburban New York City at 14. He was a high school hockey player—a goalie—and during his summers he caddied at swank Hudson National in Westchester County. He was the first player in 105 years to simultaneously hold all three major Metropolitan Golf Association titles (the Met Open, Amateur and Ike) and was a star at Virginia Tech. In '06 he capped a four-year run on the Nationwide tour with two wins.
The long, odd journey took him back to Texas and now, finally, Augusta. "I don't care if I shoot 90 both days and miss the cut, I'm so excited to be there," Wagner said. "It's a dream come true."
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"The tour is in danger of falling off the radar."
—PEPPER MILL, PAGE G36
KEY STAT 281
Johnson Wagner's average drive in Houston, nine yards under the field average.
HE SAID | HE SAID
For all its glory, does the Masters really have a tough enough field?
"There are only 90 players [in the Masters].... Of those 90, there are 20 old guys still playing, past champions, who shouldn't be playing golf. So, technically, it's a field of 70."
"Our talent on Tour is so deep, to get any sort of win, or even a top three or a top five, is really good playing."
MIKE EHRMANN (WAGNER)
ABOVE THE FRAY Wagner, 28, broke his own course record with a first-round 63.
FRED VUICH (AMES)
AL TIELEMANS (JOHNSON)