One of the most interesting aspects of The Masters is that it is essentially the Augusta National club championship. Unlike the other three majors, it is under the control of none of golf's governing bodies. The guys in the green jackets can pretty much do whatever they want, as they proved when they stared down Martha Burk and ran the tournament for two years without corporate sponsors.
Augusta National should exercise its unique nature once again and extend an invitation to the most exciting young player in the game. Hey, Hootie: Pick up the phone and tell Camilo Villegas he has a spot in this year's Masters.
The only way the young Colombian could have earned his way into this year's Masters would have been to earn enough money at The Players Championship to make it into the top 10 on the 2006 PGA Tour money list. Villegas made a great effort on Sunday but came up just short, finishing 11th. Not bad for a guy who got into the tournament at the last moment as an alternate. But there is still a door open for Camilo, and Hootie holds the key to the lock. It's called an International exemption.
A close reading of the qualifying criteria for the Masters reveals that in addition to some clearly spelled-out paths -- World Ranking and money list among them -- there is another, less specific path: Pretty much anyone the tournament committee wants can get in. Traditionally, these special exemptions have been granted to foreign players not otherwise eligible. Greg Norman is one who comes to mind as having received such an invitation in the past. Why did Norman get one? In part because he is a fan favorite. Anyone who has been paying attention to the PGA Tour this year has to be aware that Villegas has emerged as just such a darling of the crowds.
Golf is a sport that is still trying to elbow its way onto the big stage with the team sports. When Tiger Woods is in the hunt, the PGA Tour gets the kind of TV ratings anything this side of the Super Bowl gets, especially if Tiger is contending in a major championship. The highest rating for a professional golf event in the cable TV era -- which is the last 25 years -- was the 14.1 Nielsen number the Masters scored in 1997 when a 21-year-old Tiger won by 12 strokes. The tournament could shatter that number this year if it had a Sunday shootout between Woods and Villegas. That sort of attention may be too much to ask for nowadays, but it has no chance of happening if Villegas is not in the field.
Asking for an International exemption for Villegas is a totally rational request. He has proved he can play. And he brings with him the kind of sizzle the game needs. Camilo is one of the longest hitters on tour -- he's hit three drives this year of 393 yards or longer -- and his good looks, youthful energy and whacky way of dressing make him stand out in a crowd of pros too often separated from each other only by a difference in the logos they are paid to wear.
There are two other very good reasons Villegas should be invited to the Masters. First, the remodeled layout, stretched to more than 7,400 yards, plays perfectly to Camilo's game. A bomber will win this year at Augusta National, and Villegas is nothing if not a bomber.
Second, Camilo is hot now. Let's strike while the iron is not. Who knows, he might turn out to be golf's Mark Fidrych, the Detroit Tigers' pitcher from the 1970s who captured the fans' imagination for a season and then had his career ended by an injury. No one who saw Fidrych in that magical season will forget it. And while there is every reason to think Villegas will have a long and successful career, he has done enough to deserve an invitation now.
Is it wrong to lobby for an exemption into the Masters for Villegas simply because he is exciting to watch? Well, it might be wrong if that were the only reason, but he can also play. Let me repeat: He is 11th on the PGA Tour money list as a rookie. He has earned a spot in the field. But if a justification is needed to slip No. 11 into the field, it is totally fair to have as part of that justification the fact that he is a fan favorite. Remember, Bobby Jones always maintained that a big part of the success of the Masters is that it is such a fan-friendly tournament. That's true from its spectator-pleasing mounding that gives great views of the play to the fact that ticket prices and food concessions are the most reasonable in any professional sport.
Jones created the Masters for two reasons: He wanted the best players in the world to have a competition on a great golf course at which they were treated with the respect they deserve; and he wanted to give the fans top-quality entertainment at affordable prices. The Masters has remained completely true to those objectives. It is a part of what makes the Masters such a special event.
Now, Augusta National has a chance to do something that is totally in keeping with the spirit of Mr. Jones.
Whenever I use his surname, Hootie Johnson smiles, corrects me and tells me to call him Hootie. I ask the following with all the respect the request requires: Mr. Johnson, as Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, please find it in your heart to do something that would please Mr. Jones. Extend Camilo Villegas an invitation into this year's Masters. It's what the fans want.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.