News & Opinion

In nod to Bobby Jones, Masters should add amateur spots

On April 3, 1959, 19-year-old amateur Jack Nicklaus missed the cut at his first Masters. But just six Aprils later, Masters co-founder Bobby Jones said on the occasion of the Golden Bear's second of six Masters titles, "Nicklaus played a game with which I am not familiar."

Fast forward 30 years and Nicklaus played a practice round with Stanford’s Tiger Woods and was so blown away with the U.S. Amateur champion that he predicted that Woods would win 10 Masters green jackets, or as many as he and Arnold Palmer won combined.

So many of the greats of golf made their first trip to the Masters as amateurs, and cherish their stay in the cozy Crow's Nest above the Augusta National clubhouse. The celebration of amateur golf is one of the traditions unlike any other at Augusta. Five amateurs were invited to this week’s Masters, one fewer than usual because Australian Curtis Luck won the U.S. Amateur and Asia-Pacific Amateur titles.

It's been said before that Augusta National should be commended for spreading the game to new regions by offering a Masters exemption to the Asia-Pacific Am (since 2009) and Latin American Amateur champion (since 2015), and I don't disagree, but I'd like to see the amateur commitment made even stronger.

Far be it from me to tell the Masters officials how to run their tournament, but I’m going to offer some advice anyway: invite the NCAA medalist. College golf has become a global game, and the NCAA championship represents amateur golf’s deepest field. Victory at the NCAAs has been a launching pad for the likes of Nicklaus, three-time champions Ben Crenshaw and Phil Mickelson, and Woods. It is time for the NCAA individual medalist to be placed on a higher pedestal.

While I'm dreaming, the Western Amateur dates to 1899, and its 72-hole stroke-play narrows the field to 16 qualifying for match play. It is golf's ultimate marathon. Curtis Strange, Justin Leonard (twice), Crenshaw, Woods and Mickelson all won the title. Something tells me if Jones had won the Western as he did the U.S. and British amateurs, the Masters would've granted an invite to these champions long ago, but it's never too late to do the right thing.

I'm not done yet. Winning the biggest amateur titles in match play can be a crapshoot. In the 10 years since the Mark H. McCormack Medal has been awarded to the No. 1 male player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking the week after the U.S. Amateur or the British Amateur, whichever finishes later, only five of the recipients already have qualified for the Masters, and none of the past three (Ollie Schniederjans, Jon Rahm and Maverick McNealy). Wouldn't Jones want the top-ranked amateur in the world to be part of the festivities?

Masters officials typically say they'd prefer to keep the field size limited so they don't run out of daylight with a single-tee start. (The field is 95 this year.) If Augusta National is loath to add players to the field, then simply remove the automatic invite to the U.S. Amateur runner-up. Reaching the final is an achievement, but it seems un-American to reward the loser of the championship when everyone else had to win to get in. Although I'm not a supporter of addition by subtraction, the winners of the NCAA, Western Am and McCormack medal are all more deserving of an invite to the Masters than the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, who has earned a spot since 1988 but never made the cut at Augusta. (Reigning champ Stewart Hagestad could be the first.) 

During Augusta National chairman Billy Payne’s 2014 pre-tournament news conference, I asked whether there were plans to honor a public golfer once the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship retired that summer. He deferred to the chairman of the competition committee, Fred Ridley, whose long-winded answer provided little insight. Afterward, Ridley and I continued the conversation, and he asked which amateur champion I thought deserved greater recognition. When I mentioned the NCAA medalist, he nodded in agreement, but don’t hold your breath.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak