The clock is ticking on qualifying for the Masters Tournament, and the field size is right where Augusta National organizers prefer it to be.
Marc Leishman’s comeback victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday brought the list of invitees up to 90 with only two more deadlines to go before the 81st Masters field is set.
The top 50 players in the Official Golf World Ranking after this week’s World Golf Championship Match Play event in Austin, Texas, will get in along with the winner of next week’s Shell Houston Open – conceivably pushing the field as high as 96 players before the season’s first major starts on April 6.
Only 89 players teed off in last year’s Masters, matching 2002 as the smallest field since qualifications were changed in 1999 admitting players ranked in the top 50.
Tiger Woods, still recovering from back spasms that have sidelined him since Feb. 2, remains uncertain about whether he will compete. He has missed two of the last three Masters with back issues.
The official field of invitees also includes 1991 champion Ian Woosnam, who declared after missing the cut last year that he was retiring from Masters competition. But the 59-year-old Welshman indicated after finally being elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame that he might play Augusta again. He is currently playing a full Champions Tour schedule.
Two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal also plans to return after missing last year’s Masters. After missing the cut in the 2015 Masters, Olazabal did not play for 18 months because of pain in his joints caused by rheumatoid arthritis.
Two international players should get first-time invitations to the Masters at the end of the week.
The only player guaranteed to earn a top-50 invitation is world No. 33 Tommy Fleetwood of England. Fleetwood, 26, has been knocking on the top-50 for a couple years before finally pushing through at the right time to earn his first trip to Augusta with a victory in the European Tour season-finale at Dubai in November and a runner-up in the WGC event in Mexico City three weeks ago.
Barring an unlikely sequence of results from players below him in the rankings, No. 45 Jeunghun Wang of South Korea is expected to remain in the top 50 as well. Wang, 21, won consecutive starts on the European Tour last May to climb into the top 100 and broke into the top 50 with his biggest career victory in Qatar in January.
There are six players in the 64-player Match Play field who are outside the top 50 and not already qualified for the Masters. That list includes native Augustan Charles Howell, who has played in every event in 2017 except Pebble Beach that he’s been eligible for to try to secure his first return to the Masters since 2012.
Howell, currently No. 67, would need to reach the semifinals in order to gain enough world ranking points to jump into the top 50. To do that he must first be one of the two players to make it out of his round-robin group that includes Wang, Tyrrell Hatton and last year’s third-place finisher Rafael Cabrera Bello. Howell has never advanced beyond the round of 16 in the old single-elimination match-play bracket.
Howell is in similar company with Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee (No. 63), the Netherlands’ Joost Luiten (66) and South Korea’s K.T. Kim (70), who all likely need to at least reach the semifinals to move into the top 50.
England’s Ross Fisher, ranked 53rd, may need to simply earn two points and advance out of his group to climb into the top 50. His group includes Hideki Matsuyama, Louis Oosthuizen and Jim Furyk.
Japan’s Hideto Tanihara (No. 60) should he able to reach the top 50 by advancing to the quarterfinals. Tanihara is in a group with Jordan Spieth, Ryan Moore and countryman Yuti Ikeda.
After this week, the only remaining way to qualify for the Masters is to win next week’s Shell Houston Open. Since the Masters reinstated automatic entry to PGA Tour winners in 2008, four winners of the last event before the Masters earned an 11th-hour invitation – Johnson Wagner (2008), Martin Laird (2013), Matt Jones (2014) and Jim Herman (2016).
The current field includes 19 past champions and 17 first-time participants, including world No. 11 Alex Noren of Sweden, No. 14 Hatton and No. 25 Jon Rahm of Spain. Leishman, Rahm, Adam Hadwin of Canada and former Georgia golfer Hudson Swafford are the only four players to qualify automatically in 2017 with PGA Tour victories.
The five qualified amateurs in the field include world No. 1 Curtis Luck of Australia, who won both the U.S. and Asia-Pacific amateurs.