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    Pro Debut at Masters Awaits Thompson, Henley

    Michael Thompson and Phil Mickelson 2008 Masters Practice Round
    Harry How/Getty Images
    Amateur Michael Thompson and Phil Mickelson (R) putt during the second day of practice prior to the start of the 2008 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 8, 2008 in Augusta, Georgia.

    Michael Thompson and Russell Henley won’t be strangers to the surroundings when they arrive at the Masters Tournament in April. But they know the experience this time will be quite a bit different.

    First-time winners on the PGA Tour in 2013, they will make their debuts as professionals at Augusta National Golf Club. They can’t wait.

    Thompson loves big moments, and he’ll get plenty of both in the Masters. Thompson, 27, won the Honda Classic on Sunday for his first PGA Tour triumph. He’ll be making his second appearance in the Masters – he played in 2008 as the U.S. Amateur runner-up.

    Henley, a rookie on the PGA Tour, wasted no time reaching the winner’s circle with his victory at the Sony Open in Hawaii, the season’s first full-field event. It was the first PGA Tour event as a professional for the native of nearby Macon. He had played in two tour events as an amateur and previously teed it up during informal rounds at Augusta National as a collegiate star at the University of Georgia.

    Thompson, who missed the cut at Augusta National in 2008, is “really excited to go back.”

    “Brings back a lot of really fond memories,” he said. “That was my first real PGA Tour event, so to speak, professional event, that I got to play in. What a special one that was.

    “So I feel like I know how to play the golf course a little bit better. My game is a lot better than what it was senior year in college (University of Alabama). You know, just looking forward to the opportunity. My family is going to be there, and be able to share it with everybody. Who doesn't love Augusta National?”

    Thompson earned an invitation to the Masters with his second-place finish last year at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco. Thompson shot a final-round 67 to tie for second place, one stroke behind the winner, Webb Simpson. It was also at Olympic Club that Thompson was runner-up at the U.S. Amateur to Colt Knost.

    “I love the big events,” Thompson said.

    Henley, a member of the 2011 U.S. Walker Cup team, admitted after his victory in Hawaii that the thought of playing in the Masters had left him “pretty speechless.”

    “I was trying not to think about Augusta out there,” said Henley, who will celebrate his 24th birthday on April 12, the scheduled second round of the Masters.

    Henley regularly attended the Masters in his youth with friends and twin brothers Matthew and Madison Barnett.

    “Their dad would always take us to the Masters every year,” Henley said. “We'd stop at Krispy Kreme and go in and walk the course. I remember we would walk up to the ropes and we'd touch the grass with our hands … I remember seeing these rolling hills of green and seeing the guys hit the shots and just being so amazed at the whole experience, the smell, the environment of it, and being so close to home.

    “It was just the biggest deal for me just to get to go. That's why I think it was really hard for me to block that out (at the Sony Open) … I probably think about the Masters a few times a day. I played there a couple times in college, so it's quite an experience for me. It means a lot.”

    Two other players also won tournaments in early 2013 to earn Masters invitations – Brian Gay at the Humana Challenge (his second appearance) and John Merrick at the Northern Trust Open (his third Masters start).

    Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, also inched closer to a return to the Masters. He began last week at No. 79 on the Official World Golf Ranking. His runner-up finish at the Honda Classic moved him up 32 spots to No. 47 and into position to return to Augusta National. It also earned a spot for Ogilvy in this week’s World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship.

    There are 19 categories for qualification into the Masters. No. 19 on the list states that the top 50 in the OWGR during the week before the Masters Tournament earn an invitation if they are not otherwise qualified. Ironically, Ogilvy narrowly missed on qualifying based on the 18th standard – the top 50 on the Final Official World Golf Ranking at the end of 2012. The Australian was No. 51 on December 31, 2012.

    Ogilvy’s best finish in seven previous appearances at Augusta National is a tie for fourth place in 2011.

    Five PGA Tour events remain in which players can win and earn an invitation to the Masters, continuing with this week’s Cadillac Championship at TPC Blue Monster at Doral. The last opportunity to qualify is the Valero Texas Open, April 4-7.

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    Michael Thompson at The Honda Classic - Final Round
    Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
    Russell Henley at the Sony Open in Hawaii - Final Round
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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