The date is fast approaching, and the 2017 Masters is living up to its reputation as the most exclusive tournament in the game. Only 89 invitations were handed out in 2016, and this year’s field looks to finish at about that same number. The small fields and the enclosed course lend the Masters an air of exclusivity. Watching it feels voyeuristic somehow, like eavesdropping on history.
The Masters is supposed to be intimate. During each playing, for example, the amateurs in the field are invited to stay in the Crow’s Nest, the room at top center of Augusta National’s clubhouse. Few eventual winners ever had that honor, though, and no one has ever won the Masters as an amateur. The board at Augusta takes its responsibility as stewards of history seriously. They no more give away invites than they do green jackets.
Every year, as the days get longer and the weeks before the Masters become fewer, the mad dash for a coveted Masters invitation begins in earnest. Some players have fleeting Masters experiences, playing the grand tournament once or twice based on a top-50 World Golf Ranking or perhaps a previous year’s PGA TOUR win. Others, though possessing sufficient talent, never tee it up at Augusta.
Marc Leishman got his 2017 Masters invite the hard way. Leishman became the latest player to earn a Masters tee time as a PGA TOUR winner with his emotional victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Leishman has teed it up at Augusta National before, though his absence two years ago marked the most difficult days of the 33-year-old Aussie’s life.
In 2015, as Leishman was in Augusta for practice rounds during the week prior to the Masters, he received devastating news. His wife, Audrey, had taken ill and was clinging to life. Leishman did what any husband and father would do. He packed up and headed to his wife’s side — Masters be damned. Audrey, as it turned out, was battling toxic shock syndrome, which had been brought about by a rare bacterial infection. After some scary weeks, which included an induced coma, she would recover.
The brisk conditions on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational made Bay Hill a supreme test of golf, reminding fans that the season’s first major is just weeks away. The field was in flux on the back nine, with Saturday’s leaders falling back and Rory McIlroy making a charge. Leishman unleashed a 50-foot eagle putt on the 70th hole of regulation to snatch the lead, though, and held on to win the inaugural red cardigan. His young sons running out onto the 18th green with his expecting wife was a touching tribute to Palmer, as was the major-like atmosphere of the finale. Arnie would have been proud.
Another Cinderella-story Masters invite seems unlikely as the best golfers in the world assemble in Austin for the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. The cream tends to rise to the top in World Golf Championships, especially in the hyper-exclusive Match Play. The top 50 in the World Golf Rankings — from the previous season and the week prior to the Masters — already get Masters invitations, and the winner of the Match Play seldom comes from such a low seed. Since the Match Play began in 1999, its winners have been ranked outside the top 50 only three times: Steve Stricker (2001, ranked 55), Kevin Sutherland (2002, 62), and Geoff Ogilvy (2006, 52).
So, if history holds, the next (and last) chance to earn a Masters invitation will be at the Shell Houston Open, held just one week before the Masters. The field in Houston is usually stacked. Some players who have their Masters invites sewn up look at the Shell Houston Open as a Masters tune-up. Others, though, will surely be vying for their only remaining chance to make the 2017 Masters field. Players on the cusp of a top-50 WGC ranking will be jockeying for position, and a win gets you in. The roller coaster is clicking its way to the top. It should be a wild ride from here.