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Masters invitations in the mail to 87 players
by Doug Ferguson

The final world golf ranking of the year was published Monday and set in motion a holiday tradition like no other: Masters invitations are in the mail.

The 87 players who already have qualified include a record 39 foreign-born players and 10 professionals who will be making their first trip to Augusta National, such as PGA champion Rich Beem and rookie Jonathan Byrd, who grew up in Elgin, S.C.

"Augusta is the closest tournament to my house, and I can't wait to get in," Byrd said after winning the Buick Challenge, which helped him finish 39th on the PGA Tour money list.

Among those not on the invitation list are John Daly, Tom Lehman, Paul Azinger and Mark Calcavecchia, who will have to play hard in the first three months of next season to have a chance at playing in the Masters.

The final field will not be determined until after The Players Championship.

Augusta National changed its qualifying criteria three years ago to rely more on the world ranking and PGA Tour money list, meaning the majority of the field is determined three months before the Masters, scheduled for April 10-13.

The last couple of players to earn a trip down Magnolia Lane were Japanese stars Toru Taniguchi (No. 48) and Toshi Izawa (No. 50), who kept their positions in the world ranking after the Okinawa Open.

The 39 international players breaks the record of 37 each of the last two years. One of them, Peter Lonard of Australia, finished 41st on the money list, but he became eligible by winning twice on the Australasian tour - one of them a tie - and moving into the top 50 in the world ranking at No. 46.

There is room for even more players. Augusta National recently expanded its eligibility to reward players in top form.

Instead of taking the top three from the 2003 money list, it will take the top 10. And instead of the cutoff - current money list and top 50 in the world ranking - coming four weeks before the Masters, it will be one week.

That should help players like Lehman, who ends the year at No. 54 in the world ranking. Lehman has not missed the Masters since 1992.

Calcavecchia (No. 57) and Azinger (No. 68) have missed the Masters only once since 1987, while Stewart Cink (No. 72) has played in every Masters since he joined the tour in 1997.

Daly is a long shot again.

The former PGA and British Open champion made an amazing recovery by climbing from No. 507 to No. 43 over a 14-month period to qualify for last year's Masters. Daly ends the year at No. 92.

Tiger Woods, who will try to become the first player to win three consecutive green jackets, is among 20 former champions in the field.

Also on the list is six-time winner Jack Nicklaus, who didn't play last year because of back problems, and three-time champion Gary Player.

Nicklaus said recently he would like to play, but it will depend on his health and whether he feels his game is competitive. The 67-year-old Player will be in the Masters for the final time because of a new policy effective in 2004 that allows only former champions 65 and younger.


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