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John Senden punches Masters ticket

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- The tall pine trees, the needles they shed, and the rolling terrain -- if you are really reaching -- are about all this place has in common with Augusta National.

Not too many would confuse a golf course on the west coast of Florida with Bermuda fairways and greens with the famous one in Georgia where the Masters will be played next month.

Still, Innisbrook's Copperhead course turned into a mini qualifier over the weekend for the Masters, and perhaps John Senden won his second PGA Tour title because he managed to put that enormous perk -- somehow -- out of his mind.

Only Justin Rose, among the top seven starting Sunday's final round of the Valspar Championship, had already qualified for the year's first major, and the reigning U.S. Open champion figured to be a force on the Copperhead course.

But after a first-hole birdie, Rose faded, leaving the stage to a bunch of players who, frankly, had more to worry about than finding a rental home in Augusta. Senden, Kevin Na, Scott Langley, Will MacKenzie, Robert Garrigus -- these guys aren't exactly prolific winners.

And winning a PGA Tour event was their only realistic shot of getting to the Masters, per the tournament's win-and-your-in invitation.

Heading into Sunday, they had combined to win five times in their PGA Tour careers, and judging by some of the golf on display, a sixth didn't appear imminent. A good bit of that, in fairness, could be attributed to the breezy conditions and overall trickiness of the Copperhead course.

Senden is an Aussie whose two biggest victories came more than seven years ago -- at the John Deere Classic and the Australian Open. A winless stretch of that length coupled with a usually suspect game on the greens didn't inspire confidence.

But if there is one thing about Senden, it is belief in himself -- and perhaps the ability to block out what might come with winning. While admitting the Masters invite is huge, he managed to keep the Augusta pines out of his mind -- even if he spent a good bit of time amid the Palm Harbor pines.

"I wasn't really thinking about it at all, even today," he said. "I was just thinking that I really wanted to work hard on my ability to stay present with what I was doing technically and especially mentally. It was -- it was about trying to work hard to believe that I can get it done.

"If I was thinking about those issues outside I think it would have distracted me away from all that other business."

Fair enough, as there was plenty of other stuff to worry about. Senden got into contention, then bogeyed the seventh, failed to birdie the par-5 11th, added two more bogeys at the 12th and 13th holes. A birdie at the par-5 14th helped calm him down, but he immediately bogeyed the 15th.

And then he got a break.

Senden's drive at the par-4 16th -- where John Daly made a 12 on Friday -- was headed for the woods. But it hit a tree and dropped down. From there, Senden was able to get his next shot up near the green. From 70 feet, he chipped in for birdie that gave him a one-stroke advantage.

He added a 21-footer for birdie at the 17th, and all of a sudden it was his tournament.

Na came up one shot short after making a birdie at the 17th to keep it interesting. But he couldn't knock it close enough at the 18th for a reasonable try, and he'll need a victory in one of the next three tournaments to get to Augusta.

"I love going to the Masters," said Na, who has played in the tournament each of the past four years and tied for 13th in 2012. "I'd like to keep the streak going. I still have a chance with a few weeks to go. It's not over."

As for the idea of not being there, Na wouldn't let himself think that way, but seemingly has a good attitude.

"Of course I would watch it," he said. "I'd be getting comfortable on a sofa with a drink and some snack and I'd be enjoying it. It's a great tournament to watch. If I'm not in it I'll definitely be watching it. Let's hope I'm playing in it."

Senden has no such worries. He'll be back for the fifth time after tying for 35th last year.

But it didn't look good. Senden, who began 2013 at No. 38 in the world, slipped well outside the top 100 due to poor play that in some ways was caused by a rib injury. For a player like Senden, who had just one victory in his PGA Tour career, the best way in was always through the top 50 in the world ranking category or perhaps via the FedEx Cup standings, which grant a spot to someone in the top 30.

Senden was nowhere close. He finished 120th in FedEx Cup points last year and was 123rd in the world prior to his Valspar victory. The only ways into the Masters now are to be among the top 50 through the Valero Texas Open in two weeks or win one of the remaining three events -- the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Valero Texas Open or Shell Houston Open.

"As you know, Augusta is one of the greatest tournaments ever and to get back there again this year will be fantastic," Senden said. "It's amazing. It's just a dream come true to get back there again."

For Na, MacKenzie, Garrigus ... well, there is this week's event at Bay Hill.