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Augusta changes past winners policy again

In a rare admission that it made a mistake, Augusta National Golf Club revised its new policy on past champions Wednesday by reducing the number of tournaments they must play to be eligible for the Masters.

The policy, first announced last Thursday and effective in 2004, had said Masters champions could continue to compete until they were 65, but only if they played 15 official tournaments in the preceding calendar year.

That would have eliminated six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus, who has played only 15 tournaments a year three times since 1986.

Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson revised that criteria to 10 tournaments.

``The fact of the matter is we were not thorough with our research and we made a mistake,'' Johnson said. ``Therefore, we are making this change.''

While Nicklaus was not cited as the reason for the revised policy, it appears to suit his schedule. Except for 1999, when Nicklaus was recovering from hip replacement surgery, he has played at least 10 tournaments worldwide.

Even with a bad back that forced him out of tournament golf in late July, Nicklaus played 12 tournaments last year on the PGA Tour, PGA Senior Tour and European tour.

The revision came after several publications criticized Augusta National for ending its tradition of allowing past champions a lifetime exemption and making them beef up their schedule just to get into the Masters.

Earlier this year, Johnson sent letters to Doug Ford, Gay Brewer and Billy Casper recommending they no longer play in the Masters because of their recent record.

In the 2001 Masters, for example, Ford played only one hole before withdrawing from the tournament for the fourth consecutive year. Brewer, who also had a habit of withdrawing after one round, was so offended that he declined to attend the annual Champions Dinner.

Asked during the Masters if he regretted sending the letters, Johnson said tersely, ``I don't look back.''

Still, the number of players who in recent years showed up for one round -- or in Ford's case, one hole -- forced Johnson to develop a policy for past champions.

``I think as a group that we probably abused it somewhat -- guys teeing off and withdrawing every year. What is that?'' Raymond Floyd, the '76 Masters champion, said last week. ``To tee off and play one hole or three holes or nine and withdraw ... I mean, that got to be me the norm, not the exception.''

Next year still will be the final Masters for three-time champion Gary Player, Tommy Aaron and Charles Coody, all of whom will be over 65.

It might have been the final year for Nicklaus, too. Now, he can choose to compete through 2005 as long as he plays 10 tournaments a year.


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