The Loop

Why this year's Masters will be a more intimate affair

The folks at Augusta National Golf Club are nothing if not hospitable, but excuse them for not being upset with the statistical rarity that has befallen the Masters this spring. For the first time since 2002, it’s possible that fewer than 90 golfers will be in the field for the year’s first major.

Why? First, only one of the winners of the 12 PGA Tour events played in 2016 was not already set to compete in the year’s first major—AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am champ Vaughn Taylor being the lone golfer to benefit from the tournament’s policy to invite tour winners.

Second, with the top 50 on this week’s World Ranking also qualifying to compete in Augusta, only Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello—who broke in through his performance at the WGC-Dell Match Play—hadn’t previously received an invitation.

At the moment, that puts the Masters field at 92 golfers. But since that number includes Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods, both of whom aren’t expected to play because of injury, and Danny Willett and Kevin Streelman, both of whom have pregnant wives due to give birth during tournament week, the field could shrink to 88. That would be the smallest Masters field since 1998.

The last two years, 97 golfers have played in the Masters, and for nine straight years, the tournament has had at least 94. This week’s winner at the Shell Houston Open also would get the last spot available into the Masters field if he isn’t already qualified.

A year ago, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne mentioned that the club was prepared to make changes to the qualifying criteria to keep the field size from getting too large. The World Rankings have been used as part of the qualifying criteria since 1999, and Augusta National reinstated the policy of inviting winners of PGA Tour events in 2008. The problem, said Payne, is the limited daylight hours available in early spring, explaining why the more isn’t necessarily the merrier.

For now, thankfully, no such measures are needed to keep the tournament an intimate affair.