The Bassmaster Opens don't offer tour-level competition, but they're darn close. The fields are heavily stacked with tour-level pros from both the Bassmaster Elite Series and FLW Tour, and each division offers just two tickets to the Bassmaster Classic.

This year, FLW Tour pro Randall Tharp locked up the Southern Opens points title

and is headed to the 2011 Classic. The relative newcomer from Gardendale, Ala. started competing in 2003 and has fished just about every championship the sport has to offer – the BFL All-American, the Stren Championship, the Bassmaster Weekend Series Championship, the Forrest Wood Cup, the Toyota Texas Bass Classic – and now gets to add the Classic to his belt.

And he got there in style. Despite 2 years of so-so performances on the FLW Tour, his Open record's astounding. He fished two Southern Opens in 2008 and won both (plus a Stren). This year, he finished 4th, 14th and 5th in his three Open outings.

To phrase it differently, he finished in the Top 5 four out of five times in the Opens.

"I think the (Open) lakes just suited me," Tharp said of his varying performance between the Opens and FLW Tour. "I don't know that it's anything more than that. I've excelled on grass lakes. If there's grass in a lake, I feel I'm a threat to win the tournament."

He estimated he fished about 17 events this year, and checked in all but three of them. But that's not a stat he relishes. He's all about winning, and wasn't able to seal one this year. Still, he's headed to the Classic.

"It's really kind of a dream come true for me. I haven't been doing this that long, but when you get into bass fishing, your goal is to fish the Classic. It's the biggest tournament in the world, without a doubt. I believe I've fished every other championship in fishing, except the Classic. I'm pretty proud of that. But the Classic – that's what guys like me live for."

No Decision Yet

With his Southern points finish, Tharp also received an invitation to fish the Elite Series.

He continues to fish off winnings – no major sponsorships yet – and the decision of where to fish next year will come down to a business decision, he said.

"To be honest, when it comes to my tour career, I'm at a crossroads as far as which way to take for the rest of my career. I can't tell you I'm leaning one way or the other right now. I'm making my living doing this, and I've pretty much done it on my own. The last 3 years I've had to win $60,000 to break even, and I've made some good money. But it's strictly a business decision based on whatever sponsor support I can get.

"The sooner I decide, the better," he added. "My wife and I are pretty nervous and uptight about everything that's happening. Our deposits are due in 2 weeks for the FLW Tour and I don't even expect to have my Elite packet by then. I've got some sponsors now that'd like to see me in the Elites, but I feel like FLW's going to do the right thing and try to keep me fishing there. I want to make a good career out of this and a really good living, but I'm just at a fork in the road right now."


> Tharp's two Open wins in 2008 came at Santee Cooper and Guntersville.