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Masters field is taking shape

t's a holiday tradition like no other: Masters invitations are in the mail.

The majority of the field for the 70th Masters was set Monday when the final world golf ranking of the year was published. Invitations were extended to 99 players, although eight are former Masters champions who are not planning to compete, including Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

Fourteen players will be making their Masters debut, including Sean O'Hair, Tour Championship winner Bart Bryant and Augusta resident Vaughn Taylor. They should be careful opening the mail this week, because the invitations are not trimmed in gold, much less green.

"When I got my first invitation in the mail, I almost threw it away because I didn't know what it was," Charles Howell III said Monday, recalling the letter he received in 2002. "It doesn't stand out at all. It's a plain, normal white envelope. Doesn't say Augusta National, no return address. And once I opened it, well, now it's in a frame in my office. My first invitation to the Masters."

Stewart Cink (No. 27) and John Daly (No. 29) became the first Americans in three years to earn a trip to Augusta National by finishing among the top 50 in the world. Nine other players also qualified through the ranking, including Masters newcomer Henrik Stenson of Sweden and Robert Allenby, who improved some 30 spots in three weeks by becoming the first player to capture the Australian Open, Australian PGA and Australian Masters in the same year.

The rest of the field was established earlier through criteria such as major champions over the past five years, top finishers from the majors in 2005 and the top 40 on the PGA Tour money list.

The final field will be determined March 27, the Monday after The Players Championship. Players can still get in if they are in the top 50 in the world, or the top 10 on the current PGA Tour money list. Among those who finished outside the top 50 were Stephen Ames (No. 51) and Paul Casey (No. 52).

The Masters revamped its criteria in 2000 to no longer give PGA Tour winners an automatic invitation, instead rewarding consistent play through the world ranking the PGA Tour money list. Six players who won PGA Tour events are not yet eligible -- Tim Petrovic, Brad Faxon, Jason Gore, Robert Gamez, Wes Short Jr. and Heath Slocum.

Gamez (Texas Open) and Slocum (Southern Farm Bureau Classic) won tournaments held the same week as the Presidents Cup and the Tour Championship. Faxon finished 45th on the money list, and most likely would have been in the top 40 except for having season-ending knee surgery in September.

Gore did not join the tour until September.

The players will see an Augusta National course that has been lengthened again, the biggest changes coming at the par-3 fourth (now 245 yards) and the par-4 seventh, which has a tee moved 40 yards back.

"If this is the first time you saw it, you wouldn't think much about it," said Howell, who played Augusta National over the weekend. "But I think back to when Tiger (Woods) won in '97, it's not even the same golf course."

December 20, 2005

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