Jim Neveau, TGW Columnist
If you listen to any of the politicians currently running for President, you are likely going to hear them talk about how hard work is the key to achieving the American dream. The United States is the ultimate meritocracy, they will say, a magical place where social caste does not dictate the terms of your life, and you can achieve anything that you can set your mind to.
Perhaps no sport in the world captures that essence as much as the game of golf. Where most of the sports fans care about in the US are all about collective team effort and the will to win trumping all, golf demands that individuals be great for sustained periods, and with the increased parity on Tour, it is all too easy to hit a bad streak and finish out of the top 125 on the money list, thereby losing your card and your likelihood.
The biggest stages in golf are obviously the majors, and while the US and Open Championships welcome all members of the golfing populace with a good enough handicap to join local qualifiers and potentially tee it up with the pros, the Masters and PGA Championships are the true crucibles of excellence. Focusing on the tournament in Augusta, the Masters is the one event that has a small field, and it is that notion that you are getting the true cream of the crop that makes it one of the most special events in all of sports.
Qualifying for the Masters is an amazing feat. Whether it be finishing in the top 50 in the world in the World Golf Rankings, winning a sanctioned PGA Tour event, or being one of the elite amateur players in the game, there is a limited number of qualifiers, and the gods at Augusta like to keep it that way. They are also benevolent gods when it comes to increasing international participation, and they have been giving a lot of special exemptions to select Asian players to increase the global popularity of the event. Ryo Ishikawa, also a recipient of a special limited PGA Tour membership last week, is one such player, and thanks to that exemption he will be teeing it up at the beginning of April for the green jacket.
One player that is not currently eligible to compete for that title on golf’s biggest stage is South African legend Ernie Els. A Hall of Famer, Els has won two US Opens, an Open Championship, and has been one of the elite players on Tour for a period of nearly two decades. His nickname “The Big Easy” instantly registers in the minds of golf fans, and his calm demeanor on the course makes him an easy guy to root for. Unfortunately for him, his game has fallen on hard times ever since his election to the Hall of Fame last year, and he is not currently invited to the Masters as a result.
With that in mind, several members of the golf media have begun floating the idea of the club inviting Els to join the tournament with a special exemption. The last time the Masters field included a non-Asian exemption recipient came in 2002, when Australian Greg Norman was the lucky player. The club is very stingy when it comes to doling out the free passes, so there is no certainty that they will bestow a spot on Els.
The real question, however, is whether or not they should. Yes, he has made a tremendous contribution to the game of golf, and just about any pro on Tour would say that he is a class act who deserves some special recognition for his abilities. They will point to his record of winning three major titles and a slew of other events on multiple tours, and they will trumpet his help in ushering in a new era of big time competitors coming to America from overseas to test their skills against the world’s finest golfers.
All of those arguments are valid, and ESPN’s Bob Harig seemed to agree in saying that it was a no-brainer for the club to invite Els in a column he wrote for the site. Here are two of the more important parts of the column:
“So why not Els? He’s 42, and, although he hasn’t won in two years on the PGA Tour, the way he hit the ball Sunday showed he’s still got game. He led the field in greens in regulation. He rifled a drive on the par-4 16th at Innisbrook that was the longest of the day. He hit a beautiful iron shot to less than 5 feet. Then he agonizingly missed the putt.”
“So, yes, Els could have got there on his own. Augusta National is obligated to do nothing. But it is hard to believe an invite would bother anyone. Els has won three majors — one more than Norman. His 18 PGA Tour titles is only two behind Norman’s total. And they have a similar number of worldwide victories, well beyond 50.
“To Els’ credit, he has not lobbied for such an invite. He is more interested in finding the formula for success.”
Obviously, one cannot argue with Harig from a statistical standpoint. Els has an excellent body of work to draw from in terms of making an argument for inclusion in this event, and Bob was also dead on when he said that a spot for Els would not cost someone else an invite to the tournament. As opposed to a regular Tour event where the field is 154 players period, the Masters has a field size that fluctuates every year, so that is working in Els’ favor. He is also playing very well right now, so it’s not like it can be argued that he would go out and shoot 82-80 and sit on the veranda for the rest of the weekend.
The key thing to remember, however, is that Els did not get there on his own, and that should be enough of a reason to not invite him. Elite players throughout the years have not been in the field for various reasons, and Els should not be an exception. Yes he has won a ton, and yes he is a Hall of Famer, and yes there is precedent for letting someone of his caliber into the event, but just because he’s been an important force in the game shouldn’t hold any bearing in this instance.
If you were to ask Els directly if he felt he should get an exemption, he would probably be the first to tell you that he shouldn’t. Golfers as a general rule have a great deal of pride in what they do for a living, and Els has shown repeatedly that he can play with the best in the world and beat them. That kind of elite status that comes with winning championships inspires a degree of hubris, and an exemption into the Masters would almost be like a back-handed compliment to what he has done in his career. Yes, it would be a tremendous honor to be invited back to Augusta, but Els wants to earn it, and the members of the club should let him.
To put the icing on the cake on this argument, one need look no further than this simple statement: golf is a cruel game. If you hit a 350-yard drive and it’s only one inch out of bounds, you still have to re-hit from the tee box as a penalty. Nothing is ever guaranteed to anyone in life or in golf, and if Els hasn’t earned his way in, then he shouldn’t be at Augusta. It’s not personal, Ernie. It’s just business.