The Masters is Not a Major

Every professional and amateur golfer knows what it is to lose form. Professional golfers playing the world circuits refer to this inexplicable phenomenon as “the slump”. Literally every professional, no matter how successful he has become, will fall victim at some stage.

In many cases it hits more than once in a career. Some players don’t recover from the first one, never to be heard from again. Performance deteriorates dramatically overnight, and regular victory is followed mysteriously by missed cuts as a maddening standard practice. Golf psychologists and putting coaches are replaced and no stone is left unturned to change the dramatic turn of events. Yet nobody has an answer to why this happens to every golfer, including the world’s best professionals. It’s why competitive golf is unpredictable to the extreme.

Men’s world professional golf each year has four so-called “major” tournaments on the agenda, comparable to tennis’s US, Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon. These are considered the crème de la crème, and by far the most important, watched by millions across the world including in a golf-mad Asia.

The Masters, held in Augusta, Georgia in the US this coming weekend is decided in early April. It is followed by the US Open in June, to be held in San Francisco on June 11-17, “The Open”, as the Brits stubbornly refer to their own open at the Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club in Lancashire between 19th-22nd July 2012, and the US PGA championship, to be held in South Carolina in the US in August on Aug.9-12.

Needless to say, the major tournaments have a sacred responsibility to make sure that whoever is allowed to compete in their event belongs to the very best of the day, those who aren’t victims of The Slump. But some tournaments would rather play to the television cameras rather than the Leaderboard.

Organizers keep out victims of the dreaded slump by organizing, shortly before the main event is played, qualification tournaments where players have to prove that they have the required form.

The US Open reserves starting positions for the highest number of real qualifiers. This category addresses the very problem of unpredictability in golf. The Masters doesn’t reserve a single starting position for a qualifier. And then there are “automatic” qualifiers whose admittance is based on some past performance. This is where organizers step on very thin ice indeed, if they want us to believe they do their utmost to select the best of the best.

There is no way that past performance guarantees strength of play tomorrow, given the highly unpredictable character of golf.

The Masters entire field, however, consists of nothing but automatic qualifiers. A close look at the field of the 2012 edition of the tourney shows that no less than 40 of an already modest field of 97 automatic qualifiers have no business being in a major being played in April 2012. They include 14 past Masters winners, three British Open winners, two past Tournament of Players winners, considered by many the fifth major, five amateurs, five players finishing between 4th and 16th in the Masters 2011, plus nine others.

Why don’t they belong in a major? Because not one of them can realistically still be expected to win. On the 2012 US and European tour rankings, which cover results of since Jan.1, 2011, not one of them has been able to maintain their high level of performance in 2011, on the basis of which he is automatically qualified for the Masters 2012. In the first quarter of 2012 not one of them managed to stay in the top 50. Worse, most of them are -- some far out of the top 100, a deterioration in performance that we know as the slump. In other words: the kind of player that should not be allowed in an event that takes its status as major seriously.

Predictably, the most bizarre group is that of qualification category number one: “Past winners.” The Masters and the US PGA reserve starting positions in their main events for past winners, regardless of age. Why do so many past winners keep on returning to the scene of their Masters’ glory of days long gone, while past US PGA winners have been much more realistic in throwing in the towel? Past Masters winners stubbornly return because they hate missing the grand show that the tournament undoubtedly is. That they are sure to miss the cut Friday afternoon, the majority by an embarrassing margin, doesn’t seem to embarrass them, nor does it worry the organizers. In the 2009 edition 74-year-old Gary Player (winner in 1961, ‘74 & ‘78) strolled down the 18th fairway in the second and last round of his 52nd (!) and last Masters, on his way to miss the cut by a whopping 16 shots, chatting to equally moved playing partner Stephen Ames. Great TV? Absolutely. But top golf? You must be joking.

So the Masters 2012 will be contested by at most 57 players with a realistic chance to win, of the 97 who have been invited. That means fewer than 60 percent of those participating in what ought to be considered one of the world’s greatest tournaments rightly should be there.

Although golf journalists covering the Masters know this full well, they never mention it. They would almost certainly lose their press card for next year’s party, because the organizers don’t appreciate unfavorable comments.

One thing is certain: at the Masters, top golf doesn’t get the priority it must have as a major tournament. Instead it is television revenue and historical top performance, so the millions of viewers across the world who love golf are not going to see what could potentially be available to them.

Six Asian golfers qualified for the Masters: Koreans Choi Kyung-ju, Yang Yong-eun, Bae Sang-moon and Kim Kyung-tai, and from Japan Riyo Ishikawa and Hideki Matsuyama. Amateur Matsuyama, Yang (victim of his own slump as 101st on the 2012 US Moneylist), question mark Ishikawa (whose special invitation is not so much justified by recent performance, but rather the result of his stellar popularity in his home country) and Kim don’t yet belong in a major, either, but Choi and Bae, given their current ranking on the 2012 US Moneylist could well be in contention, come Sunday afternoon.

(Dickie Von Toulon van der Koog writes about golf for Asia Sentinel.)