Masters prelude in Texas draws strong field

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Ben Curtis won the Texas Open last year to secure a spot in the Masters Tournament, but it wasn’t enough to get him into the Bridgestone Invitational, a 15-minute drive from where he lives in Ohio. The Texas Open had such a weak field that Curtis did not earn enough world ranking points for the winner to qualify for Firestone.

That won’t be the case this year, and not just because Rory McIlroy – the No. 2 player in the world – made a last-minute decision to play.

Because of how the calendar falls, there were two weeks between Bay Hill and the Masters. And because of a deal that the Texas Open cannot end on Easter Sunday, it now occupies the final week before Augusta National. That spot had belonged to the Houston Open.

With so many players wanting one last tournament before going to the Masters, the Texas Open has attracted the likes of Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk, Charl Schwartzel, Ian Poulter and Peter Hanson, all of them in the top 50.

The Texas Open has 16 players who will be in the Masters. This year’s field is strong enough to send the winner to Firestone.

ONE LAST CHANCE: Germany’s Marcel Siem narrowly missed out on the top 50 (he’s ranked 51st) and his first trip to the Masters.

Now, he gets one more chance.

Tournament officials said Siem accepted a sponsor exemption Monday to the Texas Open. All winners of PGA Tour events that offer full FedEx Cup points get a trip down Magnolia Lane.

Ever since the Masters renewed its criteria to take PGA Tour winners in 2007, only one player has won the last event before the Masters to get in – Johnson Wagner at the Houston Open in 2008.

SORENSTAM AWARD: The Annika Award will be presented to the top NCAA Division I women’s player, starting next year.

“I’m thrilled to be able to have my name on this,” Annika Sorenstam said Tuesday.

The Annika Foundation and the Haskins Commission announced the award Tuesday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. The Haskins Commission also presents the Haskins Award, named in honor of the late Fred Haskins, to the top men’s college player.

Sorenstam, the Swede who starred at the University of Arizona before her Hall of Fame LPGA Tour, and Golfweek magazine also are completing plans for a women’s college tournament that will begin play next year in the Orlando, Fla., area.

GEORGIA CUP: A tradition that began in 1998 with Kuchar as the winner resumes Thursday at The Golf Club of Georgia. U.S. Amateur champion Ben Fox faces British Amateur champion Alan Dunbar of Northern Ireland in the Georgia Cup.

The U.S. Amateur champion has an 8-7 edge in the series.

Kuchar won the inaugural competition in 1998 when he defeated Craig Watson. Over the years, the Georgia Cup has featured three future Ryder Cup players (Kuchar, Sergio Garcia, Edoardo Molinari), along with Ricky Barnes, Matteo Manassero, Peter Uihlein and Graeme Storm.

Former Masters and U.S. Open champion Billy Casper will serve as honorary captain.

Fox, a senior at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, won the last two holes in regulation and then made an 18-foot birdie on the 37th hole to beat Michael Weaver last summer at Cherry Hills in the U.S. Amateur. Dunbar, who played on the Walker Cup team in 2011, beat Matthias Schwab, of Austria, in 36 holes to win the British Amateur at Royal Troon.

DIVOTS: In a classy gesture to the caddies whose players were in the pro-am, Houston Open tournament director Steve Timms gave each of them an envelope with a $100 bill for helping out with amateurs in the group. … The PGA Tour has decided not to alter the points system for the FedEx Cup playoffs this year. It had been discussing whether to reduce the amount of points in playoff events to keep the volatility but reduce the award of those who can move too high with a second- or third-place finish. … The Jim and Tabitha Furyk Foundation raised about $300,000 for local children’s charities through the “Furyk & Friends Celebrity Golf Classic.” Among the players who took part were Steve Stricker, David Toms and Justin Leonard. Also playing were Reggie Jackson and Chipper Jones. The foundation has raised $800,000 for charities since it began in 2010.


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