- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
- 0 Shares
He was all of 12 years old, an aspiring junior golfer in Venezuela playing on a nine-hole course built for oil-camp employees, when he watched Tiger Woods win the 1997 Masters by a record 12 strokes.
That victory inspired a lot of young players, including Jhonattan Vegas, who could not speak English at the time but understood he saw something special.
It was the first Masters Vegas, now 26, ever watched.
Now he's headed to Augusta National for the first time as a participant in the year's first major championship -- a long journey from a nation not big on golf to a venue that might be the most famous in the game.
"I think it's going to be a dream come true," Vegas said. "Playing the Masters is something that is on everyone's radar. It's probably one of the places in the world where you definitely want to come and enjoy it. To play the golf tournament will be phenomenal.
"It's one of those magical places in the world that everyone wants to be a part of. I'm extremely excited to be able to get a chance to play it, and it will be a lot of fun."
Vegas is part of an interesting trend this year in which several tournament winners have qualified for the Masters with their victories.
In five of the eight PGA Tour event weeks so far this year, the winner was not otherwise eligible for the Masters: Jonathan Byrd at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Mark Wilson at the Sony Open in Hawaii, Vegas at the Bob Hope Classic, D.A. Points at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and Aaron Baddeley at the Northern Trust Open.
The only other tournament winners already qualified were Bubba Watson at the Famers Insurance Open, Wilson when he won again at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and Luke Donald at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
"I don't think it will really sink in until I get to play a practice round, until I'm headed up there and get to play," said Points, who has never been to Augusta National. "It'll be my first time to feel like, 'Wow, I'm really doing this to prepare.' Obviously I've been talking to my friends and family and who wants to go and are we going to rent a house. But until I actually get there, I'm not sure if it will sink in."
Among the perks that come with winning most PGA Tour events -- a two-year exemption, a spot at the season-opening Tournament of Champions, the big paycheck -- a spot in the Masters is typically among the first things on a player's mind.
From 1972 to 1999, the Masters always had on its list of qualifying criteria that a victory in a PGA Tour event got a player entry into the year's first major. But the club eliminated that avenue starting in 2000 as it adopted the Official World Golf Ranking and expanded its money-list standard.
That is why Wilson has never been to the Masters, despite winning the 2007 Honda Classic.
But starting after the 2007 Masters, winners have returned to Augusta National after the club again changed the qualifications.
"It was after I had signed my card and was in the trailer there and was able to sit back and realize we won this tournament, I looked at my caddie and said, 'Hey, we get to play at Augusta.' So that's the first time," Wilson said of his victory in Hawaii. "So it took me three minutes since I holed that last putt, so not very long."
And that is what makes the win-and-you're-in qualification so special. The joy of learning you are in the Masters field no matter what can be overwhelming.
"We missed the excitement of the winner of a PGA Tour event immediately qualifying for the Masters," Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said upon announcing in 2007 that tour winners would once again get a spot in the field.
But it's not just any tour winner. A player qualifies for the Masters only if he wins a full FedEx Cup points tournament. That means Johnson Wagner, who won the Mayakoba Classic on Sunday, does not automatically get an invitation, nor will the winner of next week's Puerto Rico Open. They are opposite of WGC events and don't bring full FedEx Cup points.
The Fall Series tournaments also do not come with a Masters invitation because they are not part of the FedEx Cup, although it could be argued that those tournaments have stronger fields than some within the FedEx Cup schedule.
Wilson knows that feeling as well. He won the Mayakoba tournament in 2008.
And so does Byrd. His victory last fall at the Justin Timberlake tournament -- where he made a hole-in-one in a playoff -- did not qualify him for the Masters. But it did get him in the Tournament of Champions, and his victory there got him to Augusta, where he has not played since 2008. Baddeley has five appearances in the Masters, his last in 2009.
"I'm excited to get back there, I enjoy the golf course so much," Baddeley said.
As excited as a first-timer? It might make for a good argument, especially upon listening to Vegas.
"Just to be part of it, it's going to be huge," Vegas said. "I know it's a dream that my dad and my American friends have to go to the Masters, just to walk around. That's what they told me. It's like, 'Before I die, just get me to the Masters.'
"So I've just got to thank God one more time for making that happen."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
4dMicah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information