To most golf fans, the biggest story line ahead of the 2015 Masters is “Can world No 1 Rory McIlroy win the season’s first major to complete a career grand slam?”
At Augusta National, the question is more prosaic: Will the field remain under 100 golfers?
As 2014 comes to an end, for the fourth time in five years, at least 90 players already have qualified for the Masters with three months of opportunities remaining before the field is set.
Each time, Augusta National managed to achieve its objective of keeping the number of competitors in double digits.
By far the smallest field of the four majors, the Masters has not had more than 100 players since 1966.
That is what Augusta National prefers. Club chairmen have talked about a small field creating a better experience. The original name of the Masters was the Augusta National Invitation Tournament.
But if the last eight months were any indication, this could be the closest call yet.
Of the 90 players who are eligible and expected to compete, 17 earned invitations by winning PGA Tour events that award full FedEx Cup points.
That is up from 12 a year ago, a reminder not only that winning is difficult for everyone but that the PGA Tour is stronger and deeper than ever.
There are 13 chances for players not already in the Masters to win a full PGA Tour event and get in.
And because the World Match Play Championship has been moved from its traditional late February slot, top international players such as Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott and McIlroy are not expected to play much, if at all, before the US Florida swing.
The other way to qualify is to move into the top 50 in the world ranking published on March 30.
Among those on the outside is Brandt Snedeker (No 58) from the PGA Tour. Tommy Fleetwood (51), Alexander Levy (53) and Francesco Molinari (55) are also outside the top 50, though they will face some of the European Tour’s stronger fields during the Middle East swing, which includes the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, from January 15 to 18, and the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, from January 29 to February 1.
Also, the Masters has created a new spot for the winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship, to be played in January in Argentina.
A year ago, 90 players were eligible after the first cut-off in December. Seven players not already eligible won PGA Tour events, and Stephen Gallacher was added from the world ranking. Then again, one spot was reduced when Tiger Woods had back surgery a week before the Masters.
This year? It will be close.
It starts with the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, Hawaii. The field includes four players who won before last year’s Masters – Scott Stallings, Matt Every, Steven Bowditch and Matt Jones – and are not yet eligible at Augusta.
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