That policy could be making a comeback.
Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson said Wednesday the club may reconsider its qualifying procedures, which removed the automatic invitation for tour winners beginning with the 2000 Masters.
``We will give serious consideration to the possibility of tournament winners receiving an invitation,'' Johnson said during his annual pre-Masters news conference. ``This will probably be a couple of years off.''
Eight Tour winners from the past year didn't qualify for the Masters: Joey Sindelar, Jonathan Byrd, Vaughn Taylor, Woody Austin, Bart Bryant, Brent Geiberger, Andre Stolz and Heath Slocum.
Since the change was made -- giving more weight to yearlong performance through the world rankings and PGA Tour money list -- the number of non-American players has risen dramatically.
In 1999, there were 29 foreign-born players in the 96-player field for the last Masters that included Tour winners. This year, it's 44 out of 93 -- a nearly 52 percent increase.
But Augusta National has always striven for a worldwide feel to its signature event, so there's no concern about having nearly half the field comprised of non-American players.
``The fact that international players have qualified in great numbers would not be a factor in re-evaluating our qualifications,'' Johnson said.
On a related note, Johnson conceded that broadcast ratings in Japan were a factor in the club's decisions to extend a special invitation to Shingo Katayama, who will be playing his fourth Masters in five years.
Not so for Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, whose streak of 13 straight Augusta appearances ends this year -- even though he was a star on Europe's Ryder Cup team last fall and showed his affinity for the Masters by traveling to China and Indonesia in a last-ditch attempt to qualify.
``Colin will be back in the Masters tournament one way or another, surely,'' Johnson said. But ``for a golfer like Colin to come real close, then we give him an invitation, that's not something we would want to do.''
Katayama, known for his cowboy hat and effusive personality, has 16 wins on the Japan PGA Tour. He became a bit of a cult figure in this country with his fourth-place finish at the 2001 PGA Championship.
Listening to Johnson, the Masters invitation seemed to have more to do with Katayama's homeland than his performance.
``We have a long relationship with Japan,'' Johnson said. ``They have been the most populous golfing nation for many years. We do have a big broadcast over there, and that does influence us.''
That's a change from last year, when China's Zhang Lian-Wei received a special invitation but Johnson insisted it had nothing to do with promoting the Masters in the world's most populous nation.
The ``Par-3 Jinx'' is assured of lasting another year.
Jerry Pate won the par-3 contest Wednesday at 5 under par, the highlight of an always-entertaining event that featured holes-in-one by Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd and amateur Luke List.
Pate, the 1976 U.S. Open champion, took part in the event as one of the non-competing invitees to the Masters. Anyone who has won a U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship, U.S. Amateur or British Amateur can attend the Masters, play practice rounds and take part in the lighthearted tournament held on the club's nine-hole, par-3 course.
The par-3 winner has never gone on to win the Masters -- and he won't this year, either.
Crenshaw had his hole-in-one at the 70-yard second, while List aced the 115-yard seventh and Floyd knocked in his tee shot on the 135-yard ninth.
``I hit it real close, about a foot past, and it spun back in,'' Floyd said. ``It was a real nice way to finish the day.''
Crenshaw finished one stroke behind Pate.
Mr. Palmer, the Masters is holding your tee time.
For the third year in a row, the tournament will begin without an honorary starter, a position that Augusta National is holding open for four-time winner Arnold Palmer.
Palmer played in his 50th -- and final -- Masters last year. He has left open the possibility of starting the tournament with an honorary tee shot, but he's not quite ready to take on the ceremonial duties.
``We are going to hold that position until Arnold is ready to go,'' Masters chairman Hootie Johnson said Wednesday. ``I hope it won't be too long.''
Masters chairman Hootie Johnson quickly shut down any debate about Augusta National bringing in its first female member.
When a reporter tried to bring up the issue Wednesday, Johnson replied, ``We've adopted a new policy. We don't talk about club matters, period.''
The issue created a storm of controversy in 2003, when protesters led by Martha Burk converged on Augusta to demand that women be admitted as members.
Johnson refused to budge on the private club's all-male membership, even going to a commercial-free telecast so sponsors wouldn't be subject to protests or boycotts.
Burk's protest near the club drew only a few dozen people, and the Masters feels confident enough in its position to restore commercials on this year's telecast.
Tiger Woods and Ernie Els both have a chance to take the world's No. 1 ranking this week. Woods would vault to the top spot if he wins, no matter where Els and current No. 1 Vijay Singh finish. Depending on where the other two finish, Woods could reclaim the top of the rankings with a finish as low as fifth. For Els to become No. 1, the South African must win with Singh lower than tied for third and Woods lower than tied for second.
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