- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Matt Bettencourt has finally made the big leagues, just not exactly in the sport he thought it would be.
Bettencourt, 33, won the Nationwide Tour Championship on Sunday with a 6-foot birdie putt on the final hole, capping a torrid late-season run that made him the improbable winner of the Nationwide Tour money list.
It's improbable in that he was a high school baseball star who played golf on the side until his baseball career was derailed by a shoulder injury as a senior in high school. A classic late bloomer, Bettencourt is self-taught, never played golf at a four-year college and didn't turn professional until he was 27.
Six years later, he won $447,863 to take the Nationwide Tour money title and is headed to the PGA Tour with a full exemption for the 2009 season.
"I'm still in shock and awe," said the Modesto, Calif., native. "It's a dream just to make it to the tour and to finish first is just a huge bonus."
That's because, unlike the other 24 Nationwide Tour graduates, the top finisher is in a special exemption category that all but guarantees he can play in any open tournament he wants. The others get in on a space-available basis. Bettencourt also gets a spot in the big-money Players Championship in May.
Not bad for a guy who has never had a formal golf lesson.
"It's all about persistence," Bettencourt said. "If you keep plugging along even when things aren't going well, you never know what can happen."
Troy Matteson, the Nationwide Tour's leading money winner in 2005, said a similar attitude on the PGA Tour would behoove Bettencourt next year.
"That next step is a big step," Matteson said. "No matter how well you played on the Nationwide Tour, it's a reality check when you get to the PGA Tour. You're playing against the top guys in the world rankings every week.
"It's really important to stay patient because you'll make 90% of your money in 15% of your events. You can't get down and get discouraged because you might miss that hot month and not make any money at all."
That's what Bettencourt's Nationwide Tour season was looking like about 10 weeks ago. He was 77th on the money list and going nowhere fast after a missed cut in Utah on Sept. 7. But a putter switch to Taylor Made's Itsy Bitsy Spider sparked one of the hottest stretches of the season by any player.
He had a victory, a second and a fifth among his five tournaments heading into the tour championship and vaulted to No. 12 on the money list entering the season-ending event. A third-round 63 at the Tour Championship keyed the victory, which, like Bettencourt's golf career, almost never began.
The night before the tournament began, his caddie rushed Bettencourt to the hospital with severe back pain. Two hours later he passed a kidney stone, and Bettencourt was on the verge of withdrawing up until the second he hit his first shot in the first round Nov. 6.
"It bothered me more when I was walking [than] when I was swinging, so that kind of saved me," he said. "My only goal was to finish the round. I didn't care what I shot, so I think that helped, too."
The pain dissipated by the back nine of the third round, and Bettencourt suddenly found himself in position to win, sharing the lead with Bryce Molder entering the final round Sunday.
"At that point I knew I had my card wrapped up, so I started thinking about winning the tournament and winning the money title," Bettencourt said. "All of a sudden my goals changed from trying to survive to trying to win."
He had a distinct advantage over Molder, who started the week at No. 32 on the money list and needed a top-3 finish to secure his PGA Tour card for next year.
"It's such a weird tournament because so many guys are playing for so many different things and are under different kinds of pressures," Molder said. "I made a couple of bogeys on the back nine and so I felt like I had to put on the brakes a little because I had to take into account that I could get my card with pars."
Bettencourt applied no such brakes. He was tied with Jeff Klauk as he stood over that 6-foot putt on the final hole. The only way he could win the money title was to win the tournament. He drained the putt to avoid a playoff and won $180,000 to finish $10,828 ahead of Brendon De Jonge for the top spot.
"Who would have thought a guy like me would be in this position?" Bettencourt said.
Bettencourt first started playing golf at age 6, when his father taught him the basics. He started playing local junior tournaments at age 12, but baseball was always his first love. He didn't pursue golf until his shoulder popped while pitching a high school baseball game.
He played golf at Modesto Junior College and then took a job selling shower doors and windows for a local glass company. His amateur career blossomed during the early part of this decade. He won the 2001 Northern California Amateur championship and was named NCGA player of the year in 2001 and 2002.
The next year, at 27, he turned pro and entered PGA Tour Q-school, making it to the second stage. He bounced back and forth between the Canadian Tour and the Nationwide Tour over the next couple of years. Last year, after a season on the Canadian Tour, he considered giving up the game for a job offer with Taylor Made.
"That was a rude awakening," Bettencourt said. "I thought it was going to be a lot simpler than it was. I decided to give it two more years. If I didn't make the PGA Tour by then, I would have quit."
He made it to Q-school finals last year and earned a conditional exemption for the Nationwide Tour that he has turned into a PGA Tour card.
"I finally made it to the show," he said. "It's kind of a backwards way of doing it and a different show, but I got there."
Peter Yoon is a contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.
Matt Bettencourt fully expected to be playing sports for a living when he grew up. The California native just thought it would be in baseball, not golf, after he earned his PGA Tour card for 2009, writes ESPN.com's Peter Yoon.