The pandemic has left its mark on all facets of golf. One of the unfortunate casualties thus far is amateur representation in the 2021 Masters Tournament.
Currently, 84 players have qualified for the Masters field after 10 gained official entry by holding a spot in the top 50 of the Official Golf World Ranking at year’s end – and it’s 83 if 2008 champion Trevor Immelman decides again to sit out to focus on his television duties. That’s a fairly small number, as 88 were qualified through the end of 2019 for last year’s Masters. The final tally in 2020 – through a combination of qualifying PGA Tour wins and movement into the top 50 – reached 96 despite four events being canceled in the final month before the deadline.
Only three amateurs, however, have been invited thus far to compete in April – British Amateur winner Joe Long of England and U.S. Amateur finalists Tyler Strafaci and Charles “Ollie” Osborne. Three reserved amateur spots are vacant since the pandemic forced cancellation of the Asia-Pacific Amateur, the Latin America Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur championships.
Inviting the world’s top amateurs always has been a priority in the tournament co-founded by Bobby Jones. Succeeding chairmen have held firm to the mission of golf’s all-time great amateur player.
“I think focusing on amateur golf is consistent with our history, with our founder, our co‑founder, Bobby Jones.” – Fred Ridley
“The amateur golfer has always been made to feel welcome and important the week of the Masters,” Steve Melnyk, the low amateur in the 1971 Masters, once said about the year’s first major. “It’s part of the culture of Augusta National, to revere amateurism, even though professionals make up most of the field.”
Current chairman Fred Ridley reiterated that point when he created the Augusta National Women’s Amateur two years ago instead of establishing a professional event to showcase female golfers on the iconic course. “I think focusing on amateur golf is consistent with our history, with our founder, our co‑founder, Bobby Jones,” he said.
The fewest number of amateurs to compete in the Masters is three, both in 1942 and 2008. The field in 1942 was the smallest in tournament history (42 players) as the country was involved in World War II. In 2008, reigning U.S. Amateur and Public Links champion Colt Knost forfeited his invitation by turning professional instead, leaving the amateur roster depleted.
While it’s a long way from the double-digit amateur inclusion that was not uncommon before qualifying standards changed in 1989 (the record was 26 amateurs in 1966), there have been at least five amateurs in the field since 2009 when the Asia-Pacific Amateur was launched.
With the 2021 field certain to be well below 100 players, as is preferred by the club, there is ample room and opportunity for Ridley and the Masters committee to use its discretion and offer special exemptions to invite multiple international amateurs to enhance the competition for the coveted silver cup given to the Low Amateur.
The most obvious candidate is the current No. 1 amateur in the world – 20-year-old Keita Nakajima of Japan. Nakajima currently ranks among the top 500 in the Official World Golf Ranking thanks to three top-20 finishes in Japan Golf Tour events, including a third-place finish in the Taiheiyo Masters and a tie for eighth in the Dunlop Phoenix in consecutive November starts.
Nakajima is the third amateur from Japan to rise to No. 1 in the world, joining Hideki Matsuyama and Takumi Kanaya who each won Asia-Pacific Amateur titles and competed in the Masters as amateurs (Matsuyama twice). Nakajima finished second to Kanaya in the 2018 Asia-Pacific Amateur in Singapore.
Now a sophomore at Nippon Sports Science University in Japan, Nakajima gets full endorsement marks from three-time Masters winner Nick Faldo, who has followed the Japanese prodigy since he won the Faldo Series Japan Championship at age 16.
“Even then, Keita had a big reputation and was being touted as the next Ryo Ishikawa or Hideki Matsuyama,” said Faldo recently. “Since then, I’ve kept an eye on Keita’s progress. As well as challenging consistently in top amateur events, he’s been impressive also when playing alongside professionals. So, it’s no surprise to see him reach No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
“I look forward to seeing his next steps and have no doubt he is destined for a successful career in the ranks of the professionals.”
The highest-ranked international mid-amateur is 28-year-old Caolan Rafferty of Ireland, currently No. 24 in the WAGR and the oldest player selected to compete for the Great Britain & Ireland team in the 2021 Walker Cup matches at Seminole Golf Club in May. Rafferty, who went 2-1 for the winning international team in December’s Palmer Cup matches at Bay Hill, opted to return to college at age 25 and will hold off turning professional until after competing in his second consecutive Walker Cup.
Lukas Michel of Australia was the first non-American to win the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, contested in 2019. He missed the cut at the Masters in November.
The highest-ranking amateur eligible to compete in the Latin America Amateur Championship – which includes players from South and Central America and the Caribbean – is current No. 68 Gabriel Morgan Birke of Chile. Birke finished fifth in last year’s LAAC in Mexico when he was the highest-ranked player in the field. He’s made the cut in four Latin America Amateurs, finishing third in 2018 when countryman Joaquín Niemann won in Chile.
Other notable highly ranked international amateurs include: No. 4 Chun An Yu of Chinese Taipei, a fifth-year senior at Arizona State who has twice qualified for the U.S. Open; No. 5 James Sugrue of Ireland, who competed in November’s Masters as the 2019 British Amateur champion; and No. 6 Eduard Rousaud Sabate of Spain, who missed the cut in September’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
Top photo: Amateur James Sugrue played the Masters in November. Photo: Jamie Squire, Getty Images
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