Augusta National offers special Masters invitation to Japan Golf Tour player

January 9, 2019

An invite to play the Masters is easily the most coveted tournament invitation a golfer can receive. Now imagine getting that note in the mail when you’re not qualified to play in the event. That’s exactly what happened to Japan Golf Tour star Shugo Imahira.

While Imahira is not qualified to receive an automatic invitation to the first major of the year, he is more than capable of competing with the world’s best players. Imahira won the 2018 Bridgestone Open on the Japan Golf Tour, the second-career victory for the 26 year old. That coupled with his extraordinary play over the course of the season earned Imahira that Tour’s order of merit award for the year’s best golfer.

His on-course success nearly earned him a spot in the 2019 Masters the traditional way, but not quite. Masters invites are extended to past champions, PGA Tour winners from the previous year (in qualifying events), and the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, among other more limited exemptions. Imahira is currently ranked No. 53, three spots short of an automatic invite to Augusta National in April. For that reason, the rising star needed a special invitation from the club.

Shugo Imahira during the second round of the 2018 WGC-HSBC Champions.
Shugo Imahira during the second round of the 2018 WGC-HSBC Champions.
Getty Images

Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley noted that the rare invite follows a Masters tradition of growing the game globally:

“Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts established the Masters as a global sporting event, so throughout our history special invitations for deserving international players have always been carefully considered. We are pleased to continue this tradition by welcoming Shugo Imahira to our field this year based on his impressive record during the past 12 months. We look forward to hosting him and all of our Masters competitors in April.”

Many golf fans were hoping another Japanese golf star got an invite: Hosung Choi. Choi made a name for himself last year with his unorthodox swing and his win at the Japan Golf Tour’s Casio World Open in November. An online petition circulated last week to get him an invite to the Phoenix Open. But Imahira is far more qualified for the Masters based on his World Ranking. (Choi is ranked No. 198.)

The Masters has the smallest field of all four of golf’s majors. Typically around 90 players qualify each year, close to half the number of golfers who compete in the U.S. Open. Last year, many thought Ernie Els had received a special invitation into the event, only to have Els later clarify that he was only invited to attend as an honored guest.

The 2019 Masters tournament begins April 11.