Less means more at Augusta

4/2/2010 - Golf

There has always been a "less is more" philosophy around Augusta National Golf Club. The course's front nine wasn't televised until the past decade. Its new multimillion-dollar driving range will be open to members on a limited basis only. And the Masters has the most exclusive field in golf, usually with four dozen fewer players than each of the other three major championships.

This year, though, more will be more, as the field size nearly reached triple digits for just the fourth time in 74 editions of the tournament -- and the first time since 1966.

The latest invitees include Charl Schwartzel, Alvaro Quiros, K.J. Choi and Louis Oosthuizen, each of whom qualified by either jumping into or maintaining his spot in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking at week's end. That raised the current number to 97, with one more possible exemption to the winner of the upcoming Shell Houston Open, should he not already be entered in the field.

Of course, this number could have been even greater, as there are a baker's dozen past champions who won't compete, including Jose Maria Olazabal, who officially bowed out because of injury earlier this week.

Although next week's number will be larger than usual, that is hardly a new phenomenon. For the decade ending in 2009, the average field size at Augusta National was 93.3, with each of the final three years eclipsing that number.

Why the proliferation of larger field sizes in recent years? Well, there are a few reasons.

In 2006, Masters officials announced that not only would players in the top 30 on the final money list be exempt into the tournament but also those who reached the Tour Championship. Before the FedEx Cup playoffs, these lists were identical, but not anymore. It now allows for the possibility of more players in the field. For instance, John Rollins is in the field based solely on his money-list status last year, and Jason Dufner, Steve Marino, Scott Verplank and Marc Leishman are in only because they reached the final playoff event at East Lake.

Then there's the rule about allowing all winners of regular-season PGA Tour events into the field, which was reinstated in 2007. That meant good news for Ben Crane, Bill Haas, Ryan Palmer, Nathan Green and Ryan Moore this time around.

Counting those who reached the Tour Championship and those who have won tournaments, that's an extra seven competitors who might not have qualified four years ago. The result is one of the largest fields in Masters history, eclipsed only in 1962, when there were a record 109 players, in 1966 (103) and in 1957 (101).

Compare it with more recent history and you'll find just 86 players competed in 1997, when Tiger Woods earned his first green jacket, and 14 fewer back in 1979, meaning a field-size increase of at least 26 players in a little more than three decades.

All of which leads to the most relevant question: Does it matter?

"No, because I don't think anybody really cares if there's 92 or 97 -- it's still the Masters," Stewart Cink contended. "Tiger Woods is the biggest story, the golf course is the second biggest story, and the field size is not a big story at all, I don't think."

Maybe not, but at a venue where exclusivity is a way of life, a smaller number of competitors can help enhance the mystique surrounding the year's first major.

This idea is enough to have some players believing not that Augusta has gotten too big but that it might have reached its saturation point.

"I wouldn't like to see it go any higher than this; I like the exclusivity, that's another thing that makes it different there," 2003 champion Mike Weir said. "You're not fighting for range spots, you're not battling for all that stuff. … They just make it like it's real special to be in that event, to get in that event. You don't want to make it too comfortable, like maybe some of the other ones that you can get into, where there's too many categories. That's what has made Augusta special -- you have to do something great or play great to get in there."

The practical aspects of larger fields have been applied in recent years. In 2000, tee times were allocated so that each player goes off in one morning time and one afternoon time in the first two rounds; before then, tee times for the second round were based on scores after the first day. Also, tournament officials designed these groupings to be in threesomes rather than twosomes, which makes it easier for more players to tee off in a given round.

It all plays into a "more is more" philosophy that has never been overly prevalent at Augusta.

In fact, one player summed it up quite nicely when expounding on his chances against larger fields of competitors.

"You're playing against even more of the best players," said Jerry Kelly, who has competed in six of the past eight editions of the Masters. "It's still very exclusive company, so it doesn't lose anything from a player's standpoint. We understand that if you take those top categories throughout the year or win a tournament, you've done something that everyone else is looking at and, yeah, you can compete, so it's not like you're getting any kind of free passes in there. It's still an extremely elite field."

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.