PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) Whether the road to the Masters started at Riviera (Rory McIlroy), PGA National (Rickie Fowler) or Doral (Jordan Spieth), qualifying for the most restricted field of the majors starts with the Florida swing.
Last year ended with 89 players having earned invitations to Augusta National. Seven weeks into the new year, the number is likely to be unchanged.
The only PGA Tour winner to earn a spot so far is Vaughn Taylor, who won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The other addition was Paul Chaplet, who won the Latin America Amateur Championship. While there have been no official subtractions, Jim Furyk had wrist surgery and is hopeful of a return in May at The Players Championship, and the latest report on Tiger Woods is no report at all. It would be surprising if he returned to the Masters.
There are six PGA Tour events left for players to earn a spot in the Masters, and two of them are World Golf Championships: the Cadillac Championship at Doral, and the Dell Match Play in Texas. The latter has the top 64 in the world, and currently only seven of those players are not yet eligible for the Masters.
After two years of the Masters field coming close to 100 players or more for the first time since 1966, it most likely won’t come close to that this year. Augusta National will take the top 50 in the world ranking after the Match Play. As of Monday’s world ranking, everyone in the top 50 already is exempt.
Among those not yet eligible are Matt Jones (No. 52), Rafael Cabrera Bello (No. 58), Thorbjorn Olesen (No. 60), Thomas Pieters (No. 61), Marcus Fraser (No. 62), Gary Woodland (No. 63) and Ryan Palmer (No. 64).
Jones lost a good opportunity when he missed the cut at Riviera. The top 50 effectively get a free start at Doral, though Jones can still qualify if he were to move into the top 50 after the Honda Classic this week. Cabrera Bello and Fraser earned spots in Doral by being in the top 10 on Europe’s money list. Pieters narrowly missed out when Nathan Holman won in Malaysia.
Woodland and Palmer are playing in the Honda Classic this week.
Let the race begin.
HARRINGTON’S HERO: Padraig Harrington posed Tuesday with the top players from U.S. Kids Golf, 13-year-old Yae Eun Kim and 12-year-old Luke Clanton, who cited Jordan Spieth and Jason Day as their favorite players.
”You’d want to be a little older than 12 to look up to me as his idol,” Harrington said.
His sporting heroes at age 12 were in soccer, and he really didn’t pay attention to elite golf until he was 16. That would have been about the time Nick Faldo was winning his first major and Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman were battling for No. 1 in the world.
His hero? Bernhard Langer. Harrington called him the ”professional’s professional.”
”Got the most out of his game,” he said. ”Came back from the yips twice. That’s just unheard of. Absolutely phenomenal how much he got out of the game from his work and dedication. I’ve always admired that much more so than people who it comes easy to. Bernhard Langer, it never came easy to him, and definitely a hero of mine.”
RANKING GAME: While the Honda Classic has been gaining in strength over the last five years, this year’s field is not as strong at the top as it has been in recent years.
Attribute that to a change in the world rankings. And to Tiger Woods.
For the first time since 2012, the Honda Classic will not have the No. 1 player at PGA National. Rory McIlroy was No. 1 in 2013 and 2015, and Woods was atop the ranking in 2014. Woods, out with an injury since Augusta, is now at No. 445. McIlroy is No. 3, having wasted a good chance to go back to No. 2 by closing with a 75 at Riviera.
The Honda Classic has four of the top 10 in the world: McIlroy, Rickie Fowler (No. 5), Patrick Reed (No. 9) and Branden Grace (No. 10).