Daniel Berger, currently the world’s No. 13 golfer, said recently he was “a little baffled” about not being able to tee it up in the Masters Tournament in November. To alleviate any further confusion, here’s a quick primer on the situation:
If anyone was not already qualified to play in the 2020 Masters in April, they will not be qualified to compete in the 2020 Masters in November. No ifs, ands or buts about which to be baffled.
In other words, if Berger or rising Norwegian star Viktor Hovland or former University of Georgia standout Harris English win this week’s season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake and are subsequently feted as the 2020 FedEx Cup champion, they will be $15 million richer but still not be invited to play the Masters in two months.
Or let’s say one of them subsequently wins the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in two weeks, they still will not be invited to tee it up at Augusta National Golf Club the week of Nov. 12-15. The same would have been the case for PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa, had Morikawa not already snuck into the field under the wire via the OWGR top-50 deadline in March.
Weird? Certainly. Harsh? Maybe. Unfortunate? Yes.
Wrong? Not at all.
The field for the 2020 Masters Tournament was set in embossed calligraphy back in April. There wasn’t any nuance to the qualifications. There was no mistaking the very clear words dispatched from the desk of Masters chairman Fred Ridley on April 6 – what would have been the first day of practice rounds – when the new date for the postponed tournament was announced.
“We intend to invite those professionals and amateurs who would have qualified for our original April date,” Ridley said.
This is essentially the same situation the LPGA has with next week’s ANA Inspiration, which is normally the first women’s major of the season a week before the Masters. Like Augusta, the LPGA froze the field in April, which means recent AIG Women’s Open winner Sophia Popov will have to wait until April to play instead of next week.
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan addressed that controversy, and he could have been speaking for Ridley as well.
“We wanted to make sure that anyone who was qualified to play in this year’s ANA Inspiration was set,” Whan said last week. “You couldn’t play your way out of it now after restarts and COVID stops and everything else. … By setting that field we said that anything that happens after we set that field we’ll address in future years. I’m pretty sure that’s the same as the Masters, which means they set their field back in March/April and if you win anything now on the PGA Tour you’re probably qualifying for the 2021 Masters and not the November 2020 Masters. We both did that in a similar way.
“You don’t have to like that, you don’t have to agree with me on that.”
But they have to live with it.
“I want to play in the Masters. I feel like I’ve done enough to earn a spot, so we’ll see what happens. I guess it’s up to them.” – Daniel Berger
Berger doesn’t agree and is understandably frustrated to be playing arguably the best golf of his career in advance of a rescheduled Masters for which he is not eligible to play. His red-hot form starting in February includes seven top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts, with a victory at Colonial, a runner-up in the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and a pair of thirds since the restart.
“I’m a little baffled that I haven’t had more opportunity to at least hear from some of the guys over there or have a chance, obviously,” Berger said before the FedEx Cup playoffs started at TPC Boston, where he eventually tied for third. “The field was set, but I don’t know. I feel like at this point … I don’t know if I could say I deserve a spot, but I feel like I’m playing well enough to earn a spot into the Masters.”
He has earned one, of course, but the spot he earned is for the 2021 Masters next April. He’s guaranteed that spot in three different ways – PGA Tour win, qualifying for the Tour Championship and being a lock to remain inside the top 50 before the year’s end. When the sports world shut down in March, however, Berger was ranked No. 106. He would have needed very high finishes in the canceled Players or Valspar Championship just to qualify for the WGC-Match Play, at the end of which was the top-50 deadline.
The way Berger was trending, he might have done just that. But might doesn’t count and deadlines matter. Everything he’s done since has been qualifying for 2021.
Berger said his “team has had conversations” with Augusta National, presumably to pitch his case for immediate inclusion. “I’m trying not to focus too much on it, but it’s definitely in the back of my head,” he said. “I’m thinking about it. I want to play in the Masters. I feel like I’ve done enough to earn a spot, so we’ll see what happens. I guess it’s up to them.”
The Masters committee, however, isn’t the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Appeals. You don’t get to plead your arguments in front of the Honorable Fred Scobie Ridley to rule as the presiding chief justice. Augusta National has never worked that way and rules without sentimentality. It is a strict constitutionalist when it comes to its articles of qualification. You’re either in or out by the deadline and that’s that.
Qualified players who can’t play because of injury don’t get rain checks for the Masters. Sangmoon Bae didn’t get to defer his earned invitation in 2016 until after he completed his mandatory two-year military service in South Korea.
The only bit of wiggle in Augusta’s process is the little footnote at the bottom of the qualifications list – “The Masters Committee, at its discretion, also invites international players not otherwise qualified.” It’s this touch of gray that people point to on Berger’s behalf.
That small exemption was cooked into the mix before foreign-born players had as many access options to qualify. Since the OWGR top 50 became a qualifying standard in 1999, international players have outnumbered Americans in the Masters field for 13 consecutive years. The special international exemption remains and has been utilized exclusively on Asian players since Greg Norman got one in 2002. Nine Asian golfers have received special exemptions from 2004-18, including a record three to Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa (2009, ’12 and ’13).
The trouble for Berger is he’s from Florida. That’ll help him as much as being from Texas helped Tom Kite in 1992 when he sat at home preparing for his U.S. Open victory two months later while Norman, Rodger Davis, Colin Montgomerie and Joe Osaki got international passes to Augusta. At the start of 1992, Kite was ranked No. 16 in the world, but he didn’t fit any of the nine professional qualification criteria at the time which were all based on major/tour wins, high major finishes the prior year and top-30 money leaders the previous season.
On that count alone, Norway’s Hovland has a better chance of getting a last-minute invite before November than Berger. Hovland is one of the game’s compelling new faces and currently ranks No. 31 in the world and was 57th when golf shut down in March due to COVID-19 just three weeks after his maiden PGA Tour victory in the non-automatic-qualifying event in Puerto Rico.
Hovland and Berger will just have to wait until April’s edition of the Masters along with Ryan Palmer (No. 34), Harris English (51) and Mackenzie Hughes (65) – who all nailed down spots in 2021 for reaching East Lake this week. Recent winners Michael Thompson and Jim Herman also qualified for 2021 but not 2020.
Augusta isn’t getting on the slippery slope of making exceptions. The field of 96 is set, and they will have to squeeze into a November Masters window that has two fewer hours of daylight. Adding more players isn’t an option ANGC is going to take.
Berger and anyone else disappointed with that can voice their grievances to the pandemic that created this situation. The virus will listen to the complaints about as well as the Masters committee will.
Top: Daniel Berger said he is a “little baffled” not to be included in the Masters field. Photo: Cliff Hawkins, Getty Images
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