Twelve months ago John Daly, still one of the biggest attractions in golf, crashed out of the Masters with a second round 79 – and people wondered if they would ever see him at Augusta National again.
But now the 40-year-old former Open and US PGA champion, a lowly 229th on the world rankings, is among those who have been given a great chance to get back.
Daly, who no longer holds a US Tour card, was fiercely critical of the Augusta powers-that-be in 1999 after it was decided that winners on the American circuit would no longer be exempt into the opening major of the season.
But new club chairman Billy Payne, former head of the Atlanta Olympics organising committee, announced yesterday the exemption category will be back for next April’s tournament.
Starting therefore at next week’s Verizon Heritage tournament at Hilton Head, South Carolina, there is an extra incentive for the entire field.
Daly is mostly reliant on sponsor’s invitations these days after crashing to 193rd on the US tour money list last season, but he has already had eight of them this year and his crowd-pulling appeal guarantees him many more, including next week.
And since it is only two years ago that he lost a play-off to Tiger Woods for the American Express world championship in San Francisco he is clearly still capable of winning somewhere and returning to Augusta.
Europeans Justin Rose, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer, Greg Owen, Brian Davis, Daniel Chopra, Carl Pettersson, Richard Johnson, Mathias Gronberg and Scottish amateur Richie Ramsay also play next week.
As past Masters champions, of course, Woosnam and Langer are exempt for life, while Rose, Pettersson and Ramsay could do well enough this week to secure a return in a year’s time.
Payne said: “I am very, very pleased to announce the return of the automatic invitation for PGA Tour winners. I can remember innumerable times where winners of tournament events would be more excited to hear that they had qualified for the Masters than to receive the first prize money cheque.
“So it was an exciting component of golf that really only the Masters could offer and we all thought it appropriate that we bring it back.”
Wanting to keep the field around the 100 mark – this year it is 97 – only 30 spots next year will come off the 2007 US Tour money list instead of the current 40 and there will not be the separate category of top 10 players on the money list the week before the Masters.
What does not look set to change in the near future is the absence of women members at Augusta National.
Not that Payne, like his predecessors as chairman, was prepared to comment on that beyond stating: “As I’ve said many times, all members and membership are subject to the private deliberations of the members. Other than that, I’m simply not going to talk about it.”
He was still asked about a bill going through Congress in Washington that would take tax breaks away from members of private clubs who discriminate.
His reaction. “None whatsoever. I’m aware it’s been done many times in the past and (there are) no significant developments of which I’m aware.”