Belmonte earns top qualifier honors at Masters Lucas Wiseman February 20, 2014 NORTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. - It has been nearly 50 years since anyone has successfully defended a United States Bowling Congress Masters title, and Australia's Jason Belmonte has put the field on notice he's ready to end the drought.The reigning Professional Bowlers Association Player of the Year earned top qualifier honors Thursday as qualifying wrapped up at Brunswick Zone Carolier. The Masters, which features a total prize fund of $315,000, will conclude with the live ESPN finals on Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern.Belmonte finished with a 15-game total of 3,482 (232.13 average) to lead the top 64 players into the double-elimination match-play bracket, which begins Friday."Even though I was guaranteed a spot in the bracket as defending champion, I really wanted to bowl well in qualifying and bowl my way into a higher seed," Belmonte said. "My timing, footwork and release are all working well together, and I feel like if I keep making really good shots, with the way my ball strikes, it's going to be really tough for someone to out strike me."Belmonte had his biggest five-game block of the tournament in the third round, closing the block with a 300 game and shooting 1,181 total. He shot 1,149 in the first round and 1,152 in the second round.If Belmonte were to win the USBC Masters this year, he would become just the third bowler in the 63-year history of the event to successfully defend his title. Billy Welu won the event in 1964 and 1965, while Dick Hoover was the first to win consecutive titles in 1956 and 1957.Cameron Weier of Federal Way, Wash., nearly caught Belmonte on the final squad of qualifying but came up just five pins short. Needing a double in the final frame, Weier got the first one but left a ringing 10 pin on his second shot. He qualified second with 3,477.Hall of Famer Walter Ray Williams Jr. of Ocala, Fla., finished qualifying in third with 3,428, while Dom Barrett of England was fourth with 3,417. Lee Vanderhoef of Greenville, S.C., was fifth with 3,372.Pete Weber of St. Ann, Mo., and Chris Barnes of Double Oak, Texas, who qualified 13th and tied for 19th respectively, are looking to join Mike Aulby and Norm Duke by completing the PBA's Grand Slam. The Grand Slam is made up of the four majors on the PBA Tour - the USBC Masters, PBA Tournament of Champions, U.S. Open and the PBA National/World Championship.Williams and Doug Kent of Newark, N.Y., who qualified seventh, have a chance to join Aulby as only the second player to win three Masters titles.Bracket play will take place all day Friday and continue until Saturday afternoon when the final five surviving players will advance to Sunday's live championship round on ESPN.The Masters, which features a first-place prize of $50,000, is a major event on the PBA Tour and is part of the World Tenpin Bowling Association World Bowling Tour for the fourth consecutive season. All qualifying and match play rounds of the Masters are being covered live on Xtra Frame, the PBA's online bowling channel. For subscription information, visit pba.com.For more information on the Masters, including live scoring, visit BOWL.com/Masters.