How the pandemic is likely to a cost one of the hottest players in the world a spot in the Masters

Daniel Berger’s argument for a spot in the 2020 Masters field is a strong one. He is playing as well as anyone not named Dustin Johnson or Collin Morikawa. He has won a tournament since the last Masters was played. And he is well inside the top 50 in the world.

But Berger is not in the Masters, and he is unlikely to be invited — even if he were to win next month’s U.S. Open.

If you think that is strange, well, you wouldn’t be wrong. But isn’t just one major championship this season a bit odd too? Isn’t the idea of playing six majors in the coming season even more bizarre?

Welcome to the pandemic-influenced golf oddity, one that could leave Berger out of a major championship he might easily win — if he could be there.

“Yeah, I’m not sure what else I have to do at this point to get into Augusta,” Berger said last week at the Northern Trust, where he finished third, moved up to 13th in the world and is fourth in the FedEx Cup standings heading into this week’s BMW Championship. “I’m a little baffled that I haven’t had more opportunity to at least hear from some of the guys over there or have a chance, obviously.”

The 70 players who are in this week’s BMW Championship and where they stand on the FedEx Cup points list

Cue the laugh track.

Berger must be naive in the ways of Augusta National, which set its 2020 field when the tournament was postponed and then later rescheduled in April to Nov. 12 to 15. He isn’t likely getting an explanation from “the guys.”

At the time, Masters chairman Fred Ridley announced that the field was in place with the final Official World Golf Ranking published in March at the onset of the sports shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. There were 96 players who qualified.

“The field was set, but I don’t know,” Berger said. “I feel like at this point — I don’t know if I could say I deserve a spot, but I feel like I’m playing well enough to earn a spot into the Masters.”

No doubt.

Berger is one of the hottest players in the world. He won the first tournament to be played after the PGA Tour resumed its schedule in June at the Charles Schwab Challenge. He has added a tie for third, a tie for second, a tie for 13th and a third.

Before the shutdown, Berger had three straight top-10 finishes, including a tie for fourth at the Honda Classic. And he was even in the top 10 after the first round of the Players Championship, which was canceled.

What gives?

Well, these are unusual times, unusual circumstances. And Berger is in an odd spot — with some bad timing, as well — because of that.

He was 106th in the world after the Honda Classic, so he wasn’t among the top 50 players at the onset of the shutdown. He had not won on the PGA Tour since last year’s Masters. Injury issues had led to some poor play in 2019, which led to a world ranking that slipped outside of the top 100.

And while he was trending in the right direction this spring, the shutdown during the Players denied him an opportunity to possibly qualify for the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship, the last event to determine the top 50 for the Masters.

So why doesn’t the Masters just invite him?

Again, it’s tricky.

Augusta National is viewing the 2020 Masters as though it is taking place in April — not November — as it relates to qualification purposes. The four majors in 2019, all of which helped determine the field, as well as the FedEx Cup top 30 and the various winners, were already completed. Nearly a year’s worth of qualifying tournaments were played. The Masters had a full complement of qualifiers.

Players on the outside looking in were basically denied four playing opportunities to earn a spot — the Players, Valspar Championship, Match Play and Valero Texas Open. Those tournaments were canceled.

It is not unlike what happened when the 2001 Ryder Cup was postponed just a few weeks prior due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Ryder Cup officials decided to lock the teams as they were for the rescheduled matches in 2002.

The Masters drew a line in the sand with a field that stood at 96. It views anything after the restart as opportunity to qualify for the 2021 Masters — including the PGA Championship, FedEx Cup and U.S. Open.

And it is very unlikely that the tournament will extend an invitation to Berger — or to Viktor Hovland, whose February victory at the Puerto Rico Open was in an opposite event (played the same week for those not in the WGC-Mexico Championship), and thus not earning an invitation. Hovland is now ranked 31st. He too could win the FedEx Cup or the U.S. Open and be forced to watch the Masters on TV.

Unfair? Perhaps. But what is fair in this world at the moment? The Masters set its criteria and stuck to it.

If they are looking for company, Berger and Hovland can commiserate with newly crowned Women’s Open champion, Sophia Popov, who captured the title on Sunday at Royal Troon but won’t be eligible for the ANA Inspiration or the U.S. Women’s Open.

Like the Masters for the men, the two LPGA majors were rescheduled in the wake of the pandemic. The ANA stuck with its original qualifying criteria, and a money list exemption doesn’t apply to Popov because her earnings were unofficial, as she was not an LPGA Tour member. Same for the U.S. Women’s Open.

The five-year exemption she earned into both tournaments for winning the Women’s Open doesn’t begin until 2021.

What’s the harm in inviting a few more players? Well, in the case of the Masters, it prefers its field size be under 100 when it is played in April. At that, it pushes the boundaries of trying to get play completed on time, even though daylight saving time is in use.

The November Masters will be played standard time. Darkness at that time of year is before 6 p.m. Almost assuredly, the Masters will require an unprecedented two-tee start for the first two rounds in threesomes — just like what was required during the final round last year when the threat of poor weather moved up starting times.

So adding players isn’t ideal.

There is an avenue for both Berger and Hovland called a special invitation. The Masters has used it sparingly over the years to invite international players who otherwise did not qualify. It has never invited an American in this manner, ostensibly because Augusta National believes there is plenty of opportunity to qualify via the PGA Tour. Hovland is from Norway but also plays the PGA Tour.

Imagine the outcry if Hovland got an invite and Berger didn’t.

Then again, there is precedent. In 1992, both Greg Norman and Tom Kite were on the outside looking in. The Masters invited Norman; Kite did not get into the Masters, then won the U.S. Open two months later.

Berger certainly has a valid gripe. But he is unlikely to be getting a call — or an invitation — from Augusta National, although he will see something around the holiday season telling him he is in the 2021 Masters.

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