By Doug Ferguson
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Here’s a new tradition unlike any other _ the race to see if the Masters can keep its field under 100 players by April.
For the fourth time in the last five years, at least 90 players already have qualified for the Masters at the end of the year with three months of opportunities remaining before the field is set. Each time, Augusta National managed to achieve its objective of keeping the number of competitors in double digits.
By far the smallest field of the four majors, the Masters has not had more than 100 players since 1966.
That’s what Augusta National prefers. Club chairmen have talked about a small field creating a better experience. Remember, the original name of the Masters was the Augusta National Invitation Tournament.
But if the last eight months were any indication, this could be the closest call yet.
Of the 90 players who are eligible and expected to compete, 17 earned invitations by winning PGA Tour events that award full FedEx Cup points. That’s up from 12 a year ago, a reminder not only that winning is difficult for everyone but that the PGA Tour is stronger and deeper than ever.
There are 13 chances for players not already in the Masters to win a full PGA Tour event and get in. And because the Match Play Championship has been moved from its traditional late February slot, top international players such as Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Adam Scott are not expected to play much (if at all) before the Florida swing.
The other way to qualify is to move into the top 50 in the world ranking published on March 30. Among those on the outside is Brandt Snedeker (No. 58) from the PGA Tour. Tommy Fleetwood (51), Alexander Levy (53) and Francesco Molinari (55) are also outside the top 50, though they will face some of the European Tour’s stronger fields during the Middle East swing.
Also, the Masters had created a new spot for the winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship, to be played in January in Argentina.
A year ago, 90 players were eligible after the first cutoff in December. Seven players not already eligible won PGA Tour events, and Stephen Gallacher was added from the world ranking. Then again, one spot was reduced when Tiger Woods had back surgery a week before the Masters.
This year? Stay tuned. It starts with the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, a field that includes four players who won before last year’s Masters _ Scott Stallings, Matt Every, Steven Bowditch and Matt Jones _ and are not yet eligible at Augusta.
FALL OPPORTUNITIES: Two years into a wraparound schedule is too soon to analyze trends, though there was one significant change this year.
A year ago, Chris Kirk had the worst world ranking of the six winners in the fall. He was at No. 93 when he won the McGladrey Classic. Dustin Johnson had the highest ranking (No. 23 when he won he HSBC Champions), and the others were scattered in between. Jimmy Walker at the Frys.com Open was the only first-time winner.
This year provided more opportunity.
There were three first-time winners _ Ben Martin, Robert Streb and Nick Taylor _ among the seven tournaments. The player with the worst ranking? That would be Taylor at the Sanderson Farms Championship (played opposite Shanghai), who checked in at No. 594.
Bae Sang-moon was at No. 195 when he won the Frys.com Open, while Streb was No. 177 before winning at Sea Island.
The best ranking belonged to Bubba Watson, who was No. 7 when he won the World Golf Championship in China.
SCHEDULE SWAP: It’s always good to have solid title sponsors, even better to have sponsors who are flexible.
The European Tour discovered that anew when the Turkish Airlines Open _ typically the third of four events in the Race to Dubai final series _ ran into problems for 2015. The G20 Summit starts in Turkey on Nov. 15, the same day as the final round of the golf tournament. The Turkish Golf Federation feared it would be exceedingly difficult for the events to clash and asked to change the date.
The BMW Masters in Shanghai _ typically the Final Series opener _ agreed to swap.
That means the Turkish Airlines Open will be the opening Final Series event, followed by the HSBC Champions in Shanghai and then the BMW Masters. The final event is the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
“We are a dedicated partner of golf worldwide, and we were keen to act in the interest of golf,” Thorsten Mattig of BMW said.
BMW also sponsors European Tour events in Germany and at Wentworth, along with a FedEx Cup event on the PGA Tour.
REACHING OUT, GIVING BACK: The PGA Tour already is involved with military outreach with its “Birdies for the Brave” program. It added another layer for 2015 by offering military members complimentary or discounted tickets to its tournaments.
Starting with the Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, the “Birdies for the Brave Military Ticket Program” allows active duty and reserve military members, retired military and their dependents to get free admission to 30 PGA Tour events.
Discounted tickets to other tournaments also will be available to nonretired veterans.
The program is supported by Quicken Loans, the Detroit-based company that sponsors Tiger Woods’ tournament in the Washington area in the summer. Military personnel only have to visit www.birdiesforthebrave.sheerid.com to access tickets to various tournaments.
“The Military Ticket Program … is just one way we express our gratitude to those who put their lives on the line every day to keep America safe and free,” said Charlie Zink, the co-chief operating officer for the PGA Tour.
Zink is a former Navy officer.
DIVOTS: Waialae Country Club has agreed to host the Sony Open for four more years. This will be the 50th straight year at Waialae. Only Colonial and Augusta National have hosted PGA Tour-sanctioned events for more continuous years. … Bubba Watson donated his winnings from the Thailand Golf Championship to the Thongchai Jaidee Foundation, which is helping children with scholarships, golf lessons and accommodation. Watson tied for 25th and sent Thongchai a check for $9,250. … Half of the 84 professionals who already have qualified for the Masters are Americans. … Medinah Country Club has approved a $3.6 million project to restore the No. 2 course to its original character and upgrading standards of greens, bunkers and drainage. That means Medinah will have invested $14 million since 2008 to upgrade three courses, including the No. 3 course that has held majors and the Ryder Cup.
STAT OF THE WEEK: The Masters currently has 23 players from outside the top 100 in the world _ 12 are former champions and six are amateurs.
FINAL WORD: “It’s as good. I can’t believe that I’m saying that, comparing it to my lifetime goal to win on the PGA Tour. … Because the way things went the last two years, I didn’t think I would play again or compete again.” _ Arjun Atwal after winning the Dubai Open.