The PGA Tour’s expanding schedule might shrink one invaluable opportunity for its members.
With the tour’s decision to grant full FedEx Cup points to six fall events in a wrap-around fiscal season beginning in 2013, the Masters Tournament will have to decide whether it will continue to grant invitations to PGA Tour winners.
Nobody can claim that Augusta National Golf Club didn’t warn anyone of the potential consequences if the preferred intimate field size is threatened.
“We understand that whatever happens is not going to take place until the fall of 2013, so it would not affect the Masters until 2014,” Fred Ridley, the chairman of the Masters competition committee, said in April. “But it is certainly something we will be considering along with a general review of the qualification criteria, which we do every year.”
In 2008, the Masters reinstated its automatic exemption for players winning PGA Tour events “that award a full-point allocation for the season-ending Tour Championship.” That has excluded three so-called opposite events and tournaments in the fall after the FexEx Cup finale at East Lake Golf Club.
But in March, the tour announced that it would begin its season in October to include the four domestic fall series events and the two tournaments it conducts in Asia. On Tuesday, the tour announced that those six events would be worth full points toward the next year’s race to the Tour Championship.
“With the fall tournaments moving to the front end of the PGA Tour schedule, the policy board believes the next logical step is for these tournaments to kick off the FedEx Cup and begin awarding full points,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. “All of these tournaments have been very successful and certainly deserve to be part of the FedEx Cup competition.”
On Wednesday, Finchem told the Golf Channel that the tour had “very preliminary” talks with Augusta National before its announcement.
“I haven’t looked at the data that our folks have generated on the field impact,” Finchem said. “One of their focuses there is that they like the field size and we’ll see how that plays out. I wouldn’t guess right now” how the club will respond to the change.
Augusta National had no official comment on the change, referring back to Ridley’s statement in April. But Masters chairman Billy Payne has expressed concerns about the field size potentially eclipsing 100 and making it difficult to continue its preferred tradition of sending the entire field off the first tee.
Only three times in Masters history has the field topped 100, most recently in 1966 when 103 players participated. When 99 invited players teed up in 2011, Payne was concerned about the impact.
“It is borderline to be able to present the kind of competition that we want to,” Payne said. “It is more than we normally have – the most we have had in some 40-something years. We say every year in response to that question, that we look and we study the qualifications, which we do. But we are really going to look at it this year, because there is a maximum number of competitors for which we can give the experience that we want them to have and do it in a way that’s manageable. The hundred pushes that limit quite significantly.”
Had the fall event winners been included in the five Masters since the winner’s qualification was reinstated, the field would have reached 101 in both 2009 and ’11 and hit 99 in ’10.
Last season was unusual in that of the six events that will soon become part of the FedEx Cup schedule, only one was won by a player who did not otherwise qualify for the Masters – Bryce Molder at the Frys.com Open.
The stress on this year’s field size -- which reached 97 -- was also alleviated by a string of early season victories by top-ranked players already qualified in addition to three notable near-misses by players trying to earn late invitations. Ernie Els bogeyed the last two holes to fall in Tampa, Charlie Wi got clipped by Phil Mickelson’s Sunday 64 at Pebble Beach and Carl Pettersson came up a stroke short in Houston to miss out on the Masters.
Adding one or two more groups to the Masters tee sheet isn’t as easy as it sounds in the era when rounds in excess of five hours are routine. The tee times for the first two rounds in 2012 ranged from 7:50 a.m. to 1:53 p.m.. The average pace of play on Friday was 5 hours, 20 minutes, meaning the final group finished less than 30 minutes before sunset.
Judging from Payne’s enthusiasm for the tour winner exemption, it’s not a qualification he wants to withdraw.
“I can remember innumerable times where winners of tournament events would be more excited to hear that they had automatically qualified for the Masters than to receive the first prize money check,” Payne said when he announced the return of the qualification in 2007. “So it was an exciting component of golf that really only the Masters could offer, and we all thought it appropriate that we bring it back.”
Considering the tour winner exemption was only reinstated after the PGA Tour shortened its season with the implementation of the FedEx Cup, the change in circumstances will draw significant scrutiny.
It would be a sad cost of doing business for the PGA Tour if the Masters exemption were revoked.