The Masters. It is considered by many links enthusiasts to be the best golf tournament in the world.
From "Amen Corner" to the green jacket, the Augusta National Golf Club gives the event a certain air of ritualistic fervor rivalled only by the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Many of the club's rules, such as a ban on female members and an all-African-American caddie requirement, are better off dead, and frankly, lasted far too long. Other values, such as a restricted field and a front nine-only tee time format, help to set the Masters apart from the rest of its major championship peers.
A recent PGA schedule change, though, is threatening to wipe away the tournament's most crucial traditions, which could, in effect, destroy the very essence of the Masters.
It all started earlier this year, when the PGA Tour policy board tweaked its circuit's schedule to start in October and end in September, beginning in 2013. The changes, announced in a March press release, decree that "the fall tournaments will begin awarding FedExCup points," according to the official statement.
Tour commissioner Tim Finchem had this to say on the subject:
In regard to the change to the start of the PGA TOUR season, the fall tournaments certainly will benefit by becoming part of the FedExCup season. But the benefit also extends to FedEx, our telecasts of those tournaments and the understanding among fans that there's a true finality to the season
Augusta National, meanwhile, has historically invited PGA Tour winners in tournaments "that award a full-point allocation for the season-ending Tour Championship," as stated on its official website.
In years past, this qualification excluded the quartet of Fall Series events: the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, Frys.com Open, McGladrey Classic and Children's Miracle Network Classic.
Additionally, winners of Malaysia's CIMB Classic and China's HSBC Champions, tournaments that will also be awarded full FedExCup points, were not given invitations to the Masters.
Thus, Augusta officials will be forced to consider expanding their field to include winners of these six newly christened tournaments.
While it's possible that future champions of these events will have already qualified for the Masters via the Official World Golf Ranking Top 50, the Money List Top 30 or any of the tournament's 17 other eligibility stipulations, there's also a chance that this won't be the case.
As ESPN's Bob Harig so ardently points out, "If the tournament had [previously] extended an invite to the Fall Series event winners, the field size would have grown to 101 in 2009 and 2011," adding that the last time the Masters field hit triple digits was "in 1966, when 103 teed off."
On the subject, Masters chairman Billy Payne voiced his concern (via The Augusta Chronicle) in 2011. "It is borderline to be able to present the kind of competition that we want to," Payne admitted, mentioning that "there is a maximum number of competitors for which we can give the experience that we want."
More specifically, Payne stated "the hundred pushes that limit quite significantly."
This past year, the Masters' field was a cozy 97, far less than the fields of the U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship, which featured 156 golfers each.
In addition to this exclusivity, there's a more important reason why Augusta would like to remain smaller than the rest of the major championships.
Unlike most large-scale PGA events, the Masters is unique in the fact that it only tees golfers off from the front nine. If it were to abandon this format, the tournament's finishing stretch would no longer carry the allure that it does in the tournament's first two days.
Gone would be the typically Friday afternoon drama, with players ubiquitously fighting to make the cut amidst Augusta's "Amen Corner" on the back nine. Half of the field would not have the gift of playing "Redbud," the par-three 16th, in their final trio of holes.
Even more blasphemous, the pressure of the 18th's tight tee shot (pictured above), would only be experienced in its full theatrical glory by those in the field that were allowed to tee off from hole No. 1.
While it's tempting to shrug off the aforementioned qualities as immaterial, these are the peculiarities that make the Masters our favorite major tournament. Without these traditions, Augusta National would become just another course, and the infamous four-day period in early April would lose its spark.
As the PGA Tour's schedule moves into a new age, it remains to be seen what will become of the Masters. Make no mistake, though, now is a crucial time for Augusta officials.
If the club wants its tournament to remain special, it must find a way to keep its field under the 100-golfer mark. Money List and OWGR ranking requirements are already restricted as is, so the easiest way to achieve this would be to simply exclude the six additional FedExCup full-point tournaments from its invitation list.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, and make sure to check out the poll. This is sure to be a flammable topic, and all opinions are welcome.