Originally created 05/05/02

A young 66, Player proves new standard is unfair



In an economy of words, the Masters Tournament is booming.

The number of words needed to identify the No. 1 qualification criterion for invitation to the season's first major has increased 500 percent - from four to 20.

Qualification No. 1 used to be very simple: Masters Tournament Champions (Lifetime).

Beginning in 2004 it will read: Masters Champions age 65 or under on the first day of the Masters Tournament who actively participate in tournament golf.

This is progress? Not if you're 66-year-old Gary Jim Player and can bench press your golf bag and caddie over your head more times than Doug Ford can count strokes around Augusta National.

No one in the world better represents active participation in tournament golf than Player. In 2001, the South African played in 27 worldwide events. His busy schedule makes Tiger Woods seem semi-retired.

Player, however, will be 67 before next April. His Masters "lifetime" will be over. The three-time Masters champion who made the cut as recently as 1998 feels betrayed.

"I'm sad, and I'm surprised," Player said when word of the age limit for past champions first surfaced. "When I won the tournament, (founding chairman) Clifford Roberts told me personally that I had an open invitation to play as long as I wanted to play. I know he told this to other winners. He told me, 'Play as long as you like.' But he also said, 'Use your discretion."'

That discretion was usurped by Masters Tournament and Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Hootie Johnson. At 71, Johnson is chairman until he chooses to step down. He no longer grants aging champions that privilege.

"It's their tournament, and they can do what they want," Player said. "I still feel I'm athletic. It's hard to put an age on something. Some guys are a young 65. Some are an old 65. But it's their tournament."

Player, who along with Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen owns a career Grand Slam, is not the only one shut out after the next Masters. Tommy Aaron (1973 champion) and Charles Coody (1971) both will have passed their expiration dates come 2004.

"I was surprised and somewhat disappointed," said Aaron, who first learned of the rule change in a newspaper when he returned from shooting a 63 - that's right, 63 - in the one-day Grand Tradition event for major winners older than 60.

"Next year would probably have been my last year anyway," said Aaron, who will be 66 in February. "But I would like to have made that decision. It probably doesn't impact me at all, but I just hate to see that portion of winning the tournament be taken away."

Aaron's not alone. Six-time Masters champion Nicklaus feels the same way.

"If you look at the qualifications," said Nicklaus, "No. 1 in the Masters book for eligibility, it says: Masters champion, lifetime. I think we earned that. And all the guys - if it's Doug Ford, Billy Casper or Gay Brewer - they earned that right to play a lifetime. If (the Masters officials) want to stop that here on in, that's their choice."

When Johnson first announced the new criteria days after the 2002 Masters ended, the 15-event annual minimum attached to define "active" would have likely forced Nicklaus into retirement after next year. Nicklaus was so hurt he didn't want to comment.

"I'm in a tough spot," he said. "I'm hurt by it, like everyone else is. You're usually hurt most by things you love the most. I love the Masters a lot."

Unlike some of the other unlucky letter recipients, Nicklaus - an Augusta National member - got a personal phone call from Johnson admitting his "mistake" and letting him know the new rule was softened to require only 10 annual starts. That adjustment should allow Nicklaus to participate through 2005, if he chooses. Nicklaus is likely to quit sooner - on his own terms.

"Whether I play or not again, that's not the issue," Nicklaus said. "I probably play enough tournaments to qualify under that scenario. I'm very pleased with their decision, and I think a lot of other guys will be, too."

Johnson told everyone at the Champions Dinner this year that, with the help of past champions Ray Floyd and Tom Watson, he would reevaluate the lifetime qualification. Not surprisingly, Floyd (59, with six more Masters at-bats) and Watson (52 with 13) each supported Johnson's amendment.

"I think it's the right thing to do," Watson said. "It got to the point where players needed to say, 'No mas,' to the Masters and they weren't saying, 'No mas."'

Said Floyd: "I think as a group that we probably abused it somewhat - guys teeing off and withdrawing every hole. What is that? To tee off and play one hole or three holes or nine and withdraw ... I mean that got to be the norm, not the exception."

Aaron says it's easy to support a new rule when you've got five or more years to prepare for the end than it is when it's dropped right on your head. Nobody asked him, but Aaron thinks any revision should have been grandfathered in to champions before 2003.

"I saw in the paper that Watson supported this," Aaron said. "He's only 52. He never thinks he'll be 65. When I was 51 or 52, I didn't think that far ahead either."

If anyone ever did, it's Player. His fitness regimen has been legendary since his prime years. Even in his twilight, he's one of the most active and well-traveled golfers. He still believes he can make the cut at Augusta - which is the goal of many of the younger players in a field where only 20 or so have ever been competitive enough to think about winning.

"Gary stays in great shape," Aaron said. "He prides himself in that and works hard at his game. He wants to play. Some players at 65 are still competitive and don't embarrass the tournament or themselves. Some players can't. You just hope that the player, when it comes time to step down, would do it. That doesn't always happen, I guess."

There is hope yet for Player. When 2004 rolls around and he no longer fulfills any of the 17 qualification standards for participation, the Masters can still do the right thing by him. Johnson can exercise the discretion he took away from the veterans and use it to offer Player as many foreign-born special exemptions he likes. Then one day maybe Player can decide, on his own, to reduce his active schedule to 26 a year.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.