OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Alex Noren knows Sunday’s final round of the BMW Championship is a big opportunity.
But forgive him if he doesn’t fully understand the magnitude of the day.
Having never qualified for the Tour Championship in three tries, Noren was unaware of all the benefits one receives by making it to East Lake. Sure, he’s heard about the guaranteed money, and the bonus pool, and just the clout of being one of the last 30 players standing for the PGA Tour season.
What he didn’t know was that by advancing past this week, he will be invited to three of next year’s four majors – the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship – along with a PGA Championship berth that is likely already locked up.
“That would be good,” said Noren, his eyes lighting up. “That would be very good.”
Sure, many of the competitors in this week’s 69-man BMW field are spoiled; the Jon Rahms and Rory McIlroys of the Tour world already are into all of the biggest events next season. But there are a handful or two that aren’t so lucky; for those guys, this week is everything.
Full-field scores from the BMW Championship
“It’s more important than winning,” said Jhonattan Vegas, a three-time Tour winner who has made just one major start in the past two years. “Even though winning is great, and we all want to win, [getting to East Lake], it’s the No. 1 goal for everyone. It opens all the possibilities and gives you a chance to play for the FedExCup, which is the biggest thing that we play for. I mean, $15 million, being the best at the end of the year, and for a lot of us, it makes the following year a little easier.”
Maverick McNealy, in his second season on Tour, agrees. Ever since his rookie orientation, qualifying for the Tour Championship has been his No. 1 goal.
“That, to me, is the benchmark, the gold standard,” McNealy said. “If you look at the names who make East Lake, those are all really, really good players, and they’re all playing well, and that’s something that I want to do. … And quite frankly, it’s getting a little old sitting on the couch and watching the biggest tournaments on TV, and I feel like I’m good enough to be playing there. The next step is just to play great and get myself into those tournaments because that’s the best part about my job is that it’s completely on me to make my own promotion.
“It’s very cut and dry what I have to do to get into majors and start competing and be a top-ranked player in the world, and getting to East Lake is the fastest way to get into all the majors.”
Harold Varner III, who, along with McNealy, Tom Hoge and Talor Gooch, can earn his first Masters invite this week, said he hasn’t thought about the spoils of qualifying for the FedExCup Playoffs finale.
“I just know if I make it to East Lake, I'm going to make a lot of money, and kids aren't cheap,” Varner said. “Yeah, I want to be there.”
His top priority, rather, is collecting trophies. As he says, “Winning is everything.”
Vegas, Varner and McNealy, who likely need to finish in the top 6, top 7 and top 9, respectively, at the BMW to move into the top 30, will likely require something special on Sunday to accomplish their biggest goals. “I think I’m gonna need like a 60,” said Varner, who is seven shots back of a logjam at T-4.
But a few others without guaranteed major starts next year are in good position to not only extend their seasons but also set themselves up majorly for 2022.
Keegan Bradley, who has only teed it up in one of the past five Masters, entered the week at No. 32 in points and needing just a top 35 to crack the Tour Championship field. He’s currently six shots off his needed mark. So, too, is Cameron Tringale, who has played three majors in the last five years but no Masters since his debut in 2015.
Hudson Swafford, at No. 40 in points, shot 4-under 68 Saturday to move into solo ninth and boost his odds of giving himself a few more cracks at making his first major cut next year (he’s 0 for 5). He is currently projected at No. 31, a spot behind Patrick Reed, who is not playing.
Noren is projected at No. 35 right now, up from No. 43, so he's still got some work to do as he enters Sunday in a two-way tie for 12th after a third-round 67.
And then there’s Erik Van Rooyen, who hasn’t made a bogey in his past 51 holes and birdies three of his last five on Saturday to shoot 67. He is currently T-10, projected at No. 33, so he's also on the cusp of moving into the top 30 from No. 45, and if he does, he’ll get the two Opens and a second chance at completing a Masters after he withdrew during the first round of his Masters debut last fall with an injury.
“I'm aware of it,” Van Rooyen said of what is riding on Sunday’s round, “but what can I do about it? Not much, so I can just go play good golf tomorrow.”
To the victor will go the spoils on Sunday afternoon at Caves Valley.
But if Van Rooyen and his fellow major chasers have their way, there will be plenty of rewards to go around.