Rabalais: Playoff pitch turned around Matt Jones’ plans for week

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Matt Jones was headed home to Scottsdale, Ariz., to hang out with his wife and daughters, contemplate whether to play in New Orleans or Charlotte in the coming weeks, maybe watch a little of the Masters on the telly.

Instead of watching, the 33-year-old Aussie made himself part of the show. The show created by another golfing Jones, the famous but unrelated Bobby, 80 years ago.

Augusta native Larry Mize won the 1987 Masters with a playoff pitch shot for birdie to beat another Aussie, Greg Norman, and win the green jacket.

In shockingly similar fashion, Jones zapped early Masters betting favorite Matt Kuchar in a sudden-death playoff Sunday, canning a 42-yard pitch shot from over a bunker and across a ridge in the 18th green to win the Shell Houston Open.

We’ve seen other last-ditch heroics to grab the last ticket to Augusta. Davis Love III needed a win in 1995 in New Orleans and got it, taking the title in what was then called the Freeport-McMoRan Classic.

Jones had flirted with victory before. He was in the hunt last summer at the Saints’ new summer home at The Greenbrier before coming up two strokes short of Jonas Blixt, whose name sounds like a Swedish answer to Legos. Shortly after that, Jones thrust himself into the hunt for a title in the FedEx Cup playoffs but lipped out an 8-foot birdie putt that would have given him the title in the BMW Championship and put him on the path to Augusta back then.

Like a lot of pros, Jones has earned kudos for his superb ball striking. But golf tournaments aren’t won so much from tee to green as they are from ear to ear, and it was in that mental space that Jones could have been crushed by his near misses.

Instead, he believed, and was unfazed by seeing his second shot on the Golf Club of Houston’s treacherous 18th hole land well right of the green and bunker in that playoff. He told his caddy he would sink the shot.

“I actually told him I would make the putt, too, in regulation,” Jones said. Cheeky lad.

Clairvoyant and present of mind enough to know when he started the playoff with Kuchar what was at stake besides enough prize money to buy his own Shell gas station.

“You know what you’re playing for,” Jones said of the Masters invitation. “It comes with that big bonus to come here, which is amazing.”

Amazing is how much Jones’ career arc was altered by one remarkable shot.

The win put him in the Masters and the PGA Championship. It gave him a two-year exemption from qualifying, which affords tour players the ability to plan their schedule (Jones said he still plans to play in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in two weeks) instead of constantly chasing the cash until they were themselves out.

It also put him, mentally, in the same orbit as fellow Aussie winners on the PGA Tour this year: Jason Day, John Senden and Steven Bowditch. And maybe even countryman Adam Scott, who last year became the first man to take a Masters green jacket down under (sorry, Greg Norman).

“I haven’t won a lot of golf tournaments in my life,” Jones said. “I never won on the Web.com Tour. But seeing Senden win and Bowdo (Bowditch) win last week, you know you can compete with them and beat them.”

Heroics in a garden variety PGA Tour event are one thing, but here? Well, Houston, we have a problem.

Jones makes it a record 24 first-timers in this year’s Masters field. Not one of them will be comforted to know only three of 78 Masters winners have been first timers. The most recent was Fuzzy Zoeller, way back in the last days of disco (1979).

Jones first practice round of the week Tuesday will be his first ever at Augusta National. Still giddy from the win, he wasn’t embarrassed at all to say he completely missed the iconic first drive up Magnolia Lane, instead following friend and fellow touring pro Kevin Stadler (also in his first Masters) through another entrance to Augusta National.

“I’m not quite sure where to go or what doors I can go in or out of,” Jones admitted.

Of course, he found his way here in about the most difficult way imaginable — how hard could finding his way into to a green jacket be?