‘Everyone wants to get in’

Dean Wilson had to enter a Monday qualifier for the Sony Open.

Dean Wilson had to enter a Monday qualifier for the Sony Open.

HONOLULU – When he shot 68 and then survived a playoff to earn his first spot into the Sony Open, Dean Wilson could have looked around at the Monday-qualifying field and been hard-pressed to identify a familiar name.

Mac O’Grady? Dave Eichelberger? Yes, sir, those longtime veterans were there.

Brad Adamonis? Todd Fischer? Nationwide Tour back then, but present and accounted for.

The year was 2002, and Wilson remembers that it was a small, quiet production (70 players).

“Then,” Wilson said, “word must have gotten out that there weren’t as many guys here, so now a lot of guys take the trip.”

To that point, had Wilson been forced into the Monday qualifier for this year’s Sony Open (he wasn’t; instead, he received a sponsor exemption), he would have been one of approximately 100 players, 60 of whom had to first go through a pre-qualifier.

What’s more, whereas the field for the Monday qualifier in 2002 was thin on PGA Tour guys, not so these days. When they teed it up Jan. 11 at the Turtle Bay Resort on the other side of Oahu, the field included six players who combine for 20 PGA Tour wins – Scott Simpson, Billy Mayfair, Tim Herron, Frank Lickliter, Mark Hensby and Eric Axley. Throw in a pair of former NCAA champions (Kevin Chappell, Jamie Lovemark) and a one-time collegiate standout with PGA Tour talent (Luke List), then sprinkle in a healthy list of those with different levels of current status (Aron Price, Craig Bowden, Vance Veazey) and you have the makings of a strong, competitive test for a Monday.

Heck, you even had Adamonis and Fischer, right where they were eight years earlier. That might lead you to suggest some things never change, but that would be wrong. The way the Sony Open Monday qualifier has evolved in the past few years reflects the fierce competitive landscape that is the PGA Tour.

“Credit the prize money,” Wilson said. “Everyone wants to get in.”

So much so that they’re flying thousands of miles just to give it a one-day, 18-hole bid that translates into long-shot odds.

Then again, some players look around and decide they don’t have very many choices.

“There wasn’t anything I was playing in, and I wanted to start playing. I figured it was my best opportunity,” Aaron Goldberg said. He played collegiately at San Diego State, toiled on the Canadian PGA Tour in 2009, but missed out at the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School in the fall.

That puts a young golfer squarely in No Man’s Land – no status, no spots – and sometimes the first step requires a long journey with longer odds. Goldberg took the chance, and next thing he knew, he was in Hawaii.

Without a rainsuit, rain gloves and umbrella, no less.

“Got here Friday, played a practice round Saturday, then Sunday (for the pre-qualifier) it rained,” Goldberg said. “I bogeyed my last five holes.”

Still, his round of 76 enabled him to get through the pre-qualifier. When he teed it up 24 hours later in the Monday qualifier, the course was the same (Turtle Bay’s Palmer Course), only the weather was more what you’d expect in Hawaii.

Goldberg took advantage, firing a 63 to snare medalist honors and earn a spot into his first PGA Tour tournament.

Where it leads, he doesn’t know. But he does know this: “Taking this chance, coming down here, if you don’t have status it’s easier than just waiting around a whole year for Q-School.”

Goldberg certainly wasn’t alone in thinking this Monday qualifier route made sense. Some, like PGA Tour veteran Esteban Toledo, used it as an excuse to do some while work while mixing in pleasure. He caddied for his son, Nicholas, 20, in Sunday’s pre-qualifier, then shot 5-under 67 in the Monday qualifier.

Alas, neither Toledo golfer had success, but then again, the huge majority of entrants can say the same thing. That’s the way these Monday qualifiers are set up. It’s a tough gig, so you’d better have a good attitude.

“Last year, I got into (the Sony Open) on the number, but this time around I was just on the outside,” Spencer Levin said. Like a lot of players, he could shake his head at the curious way in which the category numbers fall, but given that he was 141st on the money list in 2009 and tied for 23rd at Q-School, when things were crunched “you just realize those are the rules, so I figured I’d give the Monday qualifier a shot.”

Levin shrugged his shoulders, smiled and nodded to the landscape in which he stood.

“No problem coming down here. It’s nice, so I get to stick around.”

He shot 65, then birdied the second playoff hole to secure one of the four spots. Jim Carter, another PGA Tour veteran, got one of the others, while Nick Mason, like Goldberg, came through the pre-qualifier to get the last one.

The list of those who fell short (Herron, Mayfair, Hensby, Lickliter, Lovemark, Chappell, List) had some pretty good quality, far different than those days when the lineup for these Sony Open Monday qualifiers read David Ishii and a host of club pros from Hawaii.

“If this doesn’t work out,” Goldberg said, “my backup plan is Canada again.”

But in the meantime, the tropical backdrop of Hawaii is a nice reward for having made a long trip pay off.

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