Masters field starting to rise with new winners

DOUG FERGUSON
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Golf Notes

FILE - In this July 16, 2019, file photo, Phil Mickelson walks on the 18th green during a practice round ahead of the start of the British Open golf championships at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. Mickelson has decided to play the Saudi International next year, missing the Phoenix Open for the first time in 29 years. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)

NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) — Seven tournaments from the six largest tours over the next three weeks could shape the field for the Masters, and perhaps pave the way for the largest gathering at Augusta National in more than 50 years.

Augusta National invites the top 50 from the final world ranking of the year, and then the top 50 one week before the Masters.

Among those on the bubble are former PGA champion Keegan Bradley, hanging on at No. 48, and Presidents Cup player Cameron Smith at No. 52. The Australian gets two more tries to get into the top 50.

The Masters already has 77 players who have qualified and are expected to play. From this week’s world ranking, 12 players in the top 50 are not yet eligible, meaning the size of the field could swell to 89 players going into the new year. Still to come are 12 events on the PGA Tour that offer Masters invitations to the winner, along with the top 50 from the April 5 world ranking and the Latin American Amateur champion.

Tiger Woods won against a field of 87 players this year for his fifth green jacket.

The Masters is all about providing the best experience for the players, one reason it has the smallest field of the four majors. It has not had more than 100 players since 103 played in 1966.

Why the increase?

Some of it has to do with the increased fall schedule on the PGA Tour.

A year ago, seven tournaments offered full FedEx Cup points, three of them limited fields in Asia. Only two of those seven winners were outside the top 50 in the world — Kevin Tway at the Safeway Open and Charles Howell III at the RSM Classic.

This year, the PGA Tour had 10 tournaments in the fall that offered a Masters invitation. Six of the winners were outside the top 50. Five of them were not among the top 150 in the world.

The tour had two new tournaments in the summer (between the last two majors), won by Nate Lashley in Detroit and Matthew Wolff in Minnesota. With one fewer event in the FedEx Cup postseason, 11 players who reached the Tour Championship — which comes with a Masters invitation — did not win. Five of them would have made the Masters field through other categories.

The Masters had a strong emphasis on amateurs in 1966, awarding invitations to the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur champions from the previous 10 years, the top eight and ties from the last U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Walker Cup team. That meant 26 amateurs were in the field.

Now there are six.

MICKELSON IN A DIFFERENT DESERT

Phil Mickelson has reached a stage in his career when he does what he wants with less regard to how it's perceived.

One year after he skipped his hometown event at Torrey Pines after 28 consecutive years, Mickelson has signed up to play the Saudi International in late January. That means he will miss the Phoenix Open after 29 straight years, a tournament he won three times in a city where he graduated college at Arizona State.

Dustin Johnson, who won the Saudi International last year, was among several players criticized for supporting a European Tour event in a country under heavy scrutiny for its human rights records, including the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mickelson will be joining Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau and Patrick Reed, along with European stars Henrik Stenson, Shane Lowry and Sergio Garcia.

"I watched Dustin win the title last year and thought the course looked like an interesting challenge," Mickelson said in a statement. "Having so many talented players on show also made it look like a much more established tournament than one in its inaugural year."

He then mentioned the opportunity to "grow the game," a popular phrase for new markets.

More telling was an exchange on Twitter when a follower criticized him by saying he was “better than taking the money grab from a corrupt regime.”

“After turning down opportunities to go to the Middle East for many years, I’m excited to go play and see a place in the world I’ve never been. I understand those who are upset or disappointed. You’ll be ok. I’m excited to experience this for the first time,” Mickelson replied.

Mickelson played in Abu Dhabi in 2011 and 2014, both times returning home to play Torrey and Phoenix the following weeks.

THOMAS SCARE

Justin Thomas playing a practice round in the warmth of the Bahamas revealed a scare — illustrated by a 3-inch scar just below the back of his knee — after the Tour Championship.

A visit to his dermatologist revealed melanoma that was removed.

“He said I was about eight months away from being one of his patients,” Thomas said.

Thomas, who already makes regular visits to the dermatologist, says he was told to get checked once every three months for the next year.

EYE ON GOLF

Former Masters champion Trevor Immelman and Michelle Wie are among additions to the CBS Sports golf team.

The network announced several moves Tuesday as it prepares for a season that starts at Torrey Pines the third week in January.

Frank Nobilo is taking an expanded role to become a full analyst for CBS, joining Dottie Pepper, Ian Baker-Finch, Davis Love III and Mark Immelman, who also is increasing his role at the network. Pepper, who joined CBS in 2015, has been elevated to the lead on-course reporter.

Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo return in the tower, with Andrew Catalon returning as host of PGA Tour events that Nantz doesn’t work, along with other duties. Amanda Balionis returns in her role doing interviews.

The network recently decided not to renew the contracts of Peter Kostis and Gary McCord.

For Wie, it’s another indication that her injury-plagued career on the LPGA Tour is winding down. Wie, who married Golden State Warriors executive Jonnie West this year, will contribute to cable and digital platforms for CBS, including at the Masters. Wie made her television debut as a studio analyst during the Solheim Cup in September.

DIVOTS

Jon Rahm has been voted European Tour golfer of the year by a panel of golf media. Rahm won three times on the European Tour, including the DP World Tour Championship to win the Race to Dubai and become the first Spaniard since Seve Ballesteros to end the year as Europe Tour’s top play. ... Graeme McDowell will be host of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open the next two years, starting at Mount Juliet in May. McDowell says he hopes the 2021 event can move to Northern Ireland. Mount Juliet was site of a World Golf Championship in 2002 and 2004. ... Players at the Hero World Challenge are donating $500 for every birdie, $1,000 for every eagle and $2,500 for a hole-in-one to the ONE Bahamas Fund to help with rebuilding from Hurricane Dorian. Net proceeds from the event are going to the Bahamas Fund and the TGR Foundation.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Ariya Jutanugarn, who began the year at No. 1 in the world, finished the LPGA season outside the top 10.

FINAL WORD

“I know that he does not want to go down there and not come back without the cup.” — Rickie Fowler on Tiger Woods as U.S. captain of the Presidents Cup.