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Giving invites to PGA Tour champs was a masterful decision

It's a shame that Andres Romero finished solo third at last year's British Open. Too bad, really, that he made 10 birdies during that mostly brilliant final round at Carnoustie.

Nothing against the 26-year-old from Argentina, but we wanted the personal gratification of seeing a champion at the Zurich Classic who hadn't already qualified for the upcoming Masters. We wanted to witness the ear-to-ear grin and wide-eyed wonderment of a guy who sank a putt on the final hole to not only earn a trophy, two-year exemption and a trip to Kapalua, but had placed his name on the invitee list for the year's most prestigious major in two weeks.

Even though Romero was already in the field and no further players qualified via current champion status, at least the underlying theme of the week provided some palpable drama in relation to the Masters. The Weekly 18 begins by examining last year's rule change -- and why it made so much sense.

1. Masterful decisionIn one of his first acts as Augusta National chairman, Billy Payne announced that winners of all PGA Tour events (save for those during the Fall Finish segment and opposite other events) would automatically qualify for the Masters, reinstating a rule that previously existed until 1999.

"We all thought it appropriate we bring it back," Payne said at the time.
"We missed the excitement of the winner of a PGA Tour event immediately qualifying for the Masters."

Augusta National officials aren't the only ones who missed that. Here's what the decision hath wrought:

"I'm going to be playing in the Masters. I didn't get that opportunity after my first win, so I'm really looking forward to that." -- D.J. Trahan, after winning the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

"[It's] just amazing to be able to go back there and play that golf course." -- Steve Lowery, after winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

"[I've] always wanted to play in the Masters. That would be a dream come true ... so I'm very excited about that." -- J.B. Holmes, after winning the FBR Open.

"I wasn't expecting the Masters. This is just awesome. I've got to tell my wife to book a house for Augusta." -- Sean O'Hair, after winning the PODS Championship.

You get the picture. Adding this dynamic to PGA Tour events has increased the drama for all involved while turning up the entertainment level, too.

Prior to last year, the Masters was preceded by the Players Championship just two weeks earlier, which aided the buzz factor entering the year's first major. In fact, we once wrote that if the Masters was akin to the NCAA tournament, then the Players was a conference tournament, giving us a peak into who's hot and who's not entering the major tourney.
With the Players having moved to May, this new rule gives golf its own version of Bracketology, as every single event contains the subplot of contenders trying to punch their ticket down Magnolia Lane.

On Sunday, the likes of Tim Wilkinson, Nicholas Thompson and John Merrick -- none of whom are already in the Masters field -- each had a shot to gain entrance through the gates of Augusta National, but fell to Romero, who was already in.

Then again, sometimes there's drama when we don't even know it. With his final par putt at the Zurich, Peter Lonard earned a solo second-place finish and vaulted into the top-50 on the Official World Golf Ranking. If a guy's not going to win, it's the next best way to get automatically qualified for the Masters.

"I've never made a cut at Augusta, so it doesn't really worry me whether I'm going or not," Lonard said prior to finding out he was exempt. "But I would like another go before I die."

Not everyone can be so lucky. But the good news for those players not already invited? They've still got one more chance this week. Houston, hello. You've never had so much at stake.

2. Brutal honesty"You are the biggest choking dog I have ever seen." No, this wasn't another supposed-to-be-off-air comment from Dottie Pepper, but Woody Austin describing the action on the final hole. The victim of such a snide remark? Well, that was Woody Austin, too.

Trailing by one stroke and faced with a second shot on the par-5 as his ball was nestled in the left rough, Austin took a mighty whack with a hybrid club in hopes of landing it in sand wedge range. Instead, he never got it airborne, as the ball sat down in the rough only 21 yards closer to the hole. That incited the "choking dog" comment, which TV cameras caught Austin murmuring to himself while preparing to hit his third shot. Unfortunately, the next one wasn't much better, as he pushed the ball into a greenside water hazard before eventually recording a double-bogey 7 on the hole.

Asked to explain what happened, Austin said, "I choked my guts out. That's all I can say. I flat out choked." Asked to elaborate, he continued: "I played like a dog the last nine holes. When you're in the lead and you play that poorly for nine holes, you're choking. I'm not afraid to admit it. I always battle my nerves and some days I battle them better than others. All I did today was I probably putted the best I've putted in my career just to have a chance, because I was puking my guts out."

Say what you will about Austin -- who confided recently that he hasn't been enjoying the Aquaman comments nor the fans wearing goggles -- but if there were PGA Tour leaderboards that listed players based on brutal honesty, he'd be a five-shot winner every time.

3. The plane truthThe PGA Tour's new cut rule reared its ugly head once again this weekend. The erstwhile "Rule of 78" originally called for any players who made the cut on the number to sit out the weekend rounds should the total number of players making the cut exceed 78. A recent revision adjusted that rule to only be implemented after third-round play on Saturday, allowing only the top 70 and ties to continue ... if there's no weather delay, that is. Because the third round carried over to Sunday, that entitled all 80 players to compete in the final round -- a rule so unknown even many players didn't know it existed.

"They're now entitled to play, and we even had a couple of players that were home," tournament director Arvin Ginn said on Saturday evening.

As reported by NBC, Brandt Jobe had arrived at the airport in Dallas only to turn right around and take the last flight back to New Orleans. Retief Goosen had arrived via private jet in Orlando, then flew back, employing his pilot as a final-round caddie, since his regular looper, Colin Byrne, had already gone home to Ireland. And Alex Cejka had landed in Las Vegas, but quickly hopped a flight to Houston, rented a car and drove to the course. He not only borrowed clothes, but used rented clubs and shot a 1-under 71 for the round.

Kudos to each of these players for making the strong efforts to return rather than simply taking a DQ, while the PGA Tour takes a big, fat triple-bogey for not ensuring that every player knew the rule.

4. Bunker downStewart Cink was disqualified -- or, rather, he disqualified himself -- after falling victim to a USGA rule that was instituted last October regarding bunker play. Cink hit his tee shot on the 15th hole of the third round onto the periphery of a fairway bunker. He stepped into the bunker, then stepped out and hit his shot. The approach landed some 180 yards away, but in a greenside bunker. Before playing his third shot, Cink's caddie raked the fairway bunker where his man had stepped, which by the new standards is an illegal practice. (He would have needed to wait until after Cink had hit his next shot from the greenside bunker.) Because Cink didn't assess a penalty on himself, it was later deemed that he had signed an incorrect scorecard. And if any part of that makes sense to you, consider yourself 1-up on us.

Here's the official language from the USGA's Rules of Golf:

    Rule 13-4. Ball in Hazard; Prohibited Actions -- Exception 1 amended for clarification; Exception 2 amended to refer to Rule 13-2; Exception 3 added to exempt a player from penalty under Rule 13-4a (testing the condition of the hazard) in certain circumstances.

Oh, sure. Makes perfect sense. Now that we have that all cleared up ...

OK, if you're still as in the dark on this one as us (and, apparently, Cink), here's the explanation of the rule given by NBC's Roger Maltbie during Sunday's telecast:

    "It's Rule 13-4 that does not allow a player to test the sand or test the surface of a hazard prior to playing his initial stroke. Now, since Stewart played the ball from outside the hazard into a hazard, but stood in a hazard, raking the sand is designated to be testing the surface. Had he played his original shot from that fairway bunker, then he would have already played his initial shot and the caddie could have gone ahead and raked the bunker."

We get the rule (sorta) and we get why it was instituted by the USGA (kinda), but in circumstances such as this where the caddie would have to wait 180 yards behind his player, it sure doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense.

5. Incidental incidentUnlike many contact sports, confrontations in golf aren't usually, well, confrontational. But Bubba Watson, never one to refrain from speaking his mind, became visibly and audibly heated with playing partner Steve Elkington during Friday's second round. Preparing to hit his approach shot on the par-4 10th hole, Watson apparently caught Elkington still walking up the fairway out of the corner of his eye and lit into the 22-year PGA Tour vet.

Said a clearly incensed Bubba: "You gonna stop walking, man? Damn. You did it all day yesterday. I tell you what -- veterans can kiss my ass."

While relations remained frosty for the remainder of the round -- which didn't include the traditional post-round handshake on the final green -- Watson shouldered the blame afterward.

"I heard some movement, and who knows what it was," Watson said. "I was just over the ball, and just trying to make the cut and trying to play better and not getting the right breaks. I was already mad for the day, and I just took it out on them, and I shouldn't have.

"We hugged it out. Everything is good. He's not mad. He's looking at me like a son basically because I'm a lot younger than him. He just took me aside and said, 'Be stronger in what you're doing and make sure you don't do that.' "

For his part, Elkington declined to comment on the incident after the round.

6. The long and short of thingsSo, what was the genesis of this confrontation? Conventional wisdom says it was the difference in driving distance between the two players. Elkington currently ranks 140th on tour with an average of 276.8 yards per drive, while Watson is No. 1 at 311.2.

So, how does that equate into a confrontation? Because after Elkington hit his approach shot on each hole, it meant he had to walk an average distance of 34 yards just to reach the location of Watson's tee shot. Meanwhile, Bubba plays fast, so as Elkington was hustling to get into position, he was interfering with his playing partner's preparation and eventual execution. Tell you the truth, we're surprised Watson -- along with other big bombers like J.B. Holmes and Brett Wetterich -- hasn't publicly had issues with shorter-hitting, slower playing partners in the past (although, honestly, there aren't many slower than Holmes).

All of which leads to the question: Whose fault was it? Well, quite frankly, both of 'em. Elk should have been more cognizant of Watson's timing and his propensity to pull the trigger quickly, but the latter could have shown a more professional attitude in the heat of the moment. That said, let's give major bonus points to Watson for not only speaking with Elkington after the round, but apologizing for his outburst and publicly issuing his regrets on the matter.

7. Fore-shadowing?One sidenote to this tiff that didn't receive much airtime on Friday was the fact that this had been brewing during the first round as well. Following his opening 4-under 68, Elkington met with the media:

    Q: Do you see low scores this week on this course?
    A: You'll have to play well. I mean, I played with Bubba Watson. I told my caddie in the beginning of the week I didn't think it was a long driver's course because it's all about being on the green in regulation. I played with Bubba Watson and he hits the ball long, but he didn't score better than we did, Shigeki Maruyama and I. It's sort of a long Hilton Head or a TPC Sawgrass, it's a thinking man's course.

Now, calling Bubba a "long driver" isn't exactly news nor is it the type of fighting words that could get Elk into trouble with his playing partner. But it's the end of that quote, the insinuation that Watson isn't a "thinking man" on the course, that could certainly cause a rift between the players.

Don't know if Bubba heard this comment or not, but it certainly could have served as fuel to the fire.

8. Third man inThis situation was not without some humor, however. While the situation climaxed between Watson and Elkington, the third member of their playing group, who speaks limited English, simply took in the scene. As reported by The Advocate:

    When Maruyama emerged from the scoring area, he looked at a large group of waiting reporters and pretended to be boxing. He then smiled and said, "Big problem."

    Through an interpreter, Maruyama said the incident started during Thursday's first round and everything boiled over Friday.

    "[Watson] said Elkington was noisy and his caddie was loud, too," Maruyama said. "Elkington wanted to talk with him about it, but [Watson] ignored him. Then he said a bad word."

9. Matching pairFirst- and second-round tee times on the PGA Tour are randomly generated by a computer, though former champions are usually grouped with likeminded players and non-winners compete with other non-winners. So perhaps it's simply computer laziness to blame for pairing alphabetically linked Roland Thatcher and Nicholas Thompson so often this season. (Though truth be told, a third Nationwide Tour grad, Kyle Thompson, falls between those two alphabetically.)

"Every round," Thatcher told the Weekly 18 via text message on Friday, "but he's a good guy to play with." And why not? Thatcher and Thompson fed off of each other so well over the first two rounds that they were able to shoot identical scores of 4-under-par 140 through the opening 36 holes. Those matching totals earned the players another tee time together on Saturday and they remained paired when groupings didn't change for the final round.

Thompson finished with rounds of 67-71 for a T-4 result -- the best of his career on the PGA Tour -- and Thatcher closed with a 70-72 to finish T-20.

10. Just like old timesTim Clark made a hole-in-one at 174-yard ninth hole during the second round. "They've shortened the hole a little bit for us, makes it a bit easier," he said afterward. "Hit a 6-iron in there. I was obviously aiming a little right of the flag, but hit a really good shot and it hit soft and disappeared."

We couldn't help but compare it to Clark's first-ever ace, which came as an 8-year-old in South Africa. He described that one to us in a recent Hot Seat interview: "It was my home course, and it was a junior tournament. The hole probably measures about 135 yards or so, and I had a 2-wood, about five irons and a putter, so I got up there and hit the 2-wood, ran it up between the two bunkers that guard the pin. That was the only way I could get it up there, by running it up this little pathway that was only 5 or 6 feet wide. Sure enough, it ran up there and went into the hole."

11. Where is the Love?Davis Love III has played in every single Masters since 1991, but that streak will likely end in two weeks. Currently ranked 99th in the world, Love is well outside the top-50 who receive eligibility and hasn't won an event since late-2006.

At the Zurich Classic, he shot 76-75 to finish in a share of 130th out of 144 players -- seven shots off the cutline. In 36 holes, Love made 10 bogeys and two doubles against only seven birdies. The issue with his game since returning from an ankle injury earlier this season? Well, everything. Love ranks 174th in driving accuracy (55.20 percent), 173rd in greens in regulation (59.03 percent) and 123rd in putting average (1.812 putts per GIR).

Of course, Love does have one more chance to return to Augusta, as a victory at this week's Houston Open will earn an 18th straight trip.

12. Daly doseOne player who will be keeping his Masters streak alive? John Daly, who will miss the tournament for a second straight year. In his first start since a controversial DQ for missing his pro-am tee time at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Daly shot 73-77 in New Orleans to miss the cut for the fifth time in eight starts this season.

Though Long John has failed to reach the weekend in four of his last five Masters appearances, there was a time when he was actually considered to be on the short list of contenders, making the cut in each of his first seven starts in the event, including a personal-best T-3 in 1995. Like Love, Daly is also in the field at Houston, where he finished runner-up four years ago after losing in a playoff to Vijay Singh.

It's unknown whether Daly will once again be manning the merchandise truck at the Hooters on Washington Road in Augusta during Masters week.

13. Off the DiMarcoOK, one more: Three years ago, Chris DiMarco was ohsoclose to not only winning the Masters, but taking down Tiger Woods from behind in the process. He lost in a playoff, but has since seen his results curtailed by a variety of injuries that have left him at 133rd in the Official World Golf Ranking, a dropoff of 126 spots since that week.

Like Love and Daly, DiMarco also missed the cut by more than a few strokes at the Zurich. Unlike the other two, he's not entered in this week's field, meaning he's definitely out of this year's Masters.

14. Master of qualifyingInteresting e-mail from reader Matt in Houston hit the inbox this week:

    One more way to show Tiger Woods' dominance: Go to the Masters Web site and pull up the list of the 2008 invitees. After each player's name is a series of numbers that indicate how each player qualified. As of right now, there are 18 ways to qualify, four of which are reserved for amateur champions. That leaves 14 ways for a professional to qualify. Of these 14, Tiger has achieved (or will achieve) 11 of them. The only ones he misses out on are winning the Players Championship in the last two years, winning the U.S. Open in the last five years (he is one year past that) and not finishing in the top-4 at the 2007 British Open. The next closest is Phil Mickelson, who is qualified in seven different categories. I think it is a good indication of how good this guy is.

Not bad, Matt, but it pales in comparison to Woods' qualifying status for the 2001 Masters when, by our count, he qualified in every single category for which he was eligible.

15. Some of the Presidents menWhat do Michael Jordan, Robin Williams and Jay Haas have in common? They may each be involved in helping Fred Couples run next year's U.S. Presidents Cup team.

While the first two may only still exist as a pipe dream -- Couples, who has said in the past that he'd like Jordan and Williams to aid the team, confided this week that he has spoken with MJ, but hasn't heard from Williams nor does he know anyone who knows the comedian -- Haas is now firmly on board as one of Freddie's assistant captains.

Or is it the other way around? Here's an interesting comment from Couples, who held a joint news conference with Haas to make the announcement on Thursday: "I think Jay has a lot of respect, and I've known him a long time, and he's a very good decision-maker. And he'll be 60 percent of a captain. I'll be 40, but I just have more authority to nix some of his decisions."

Hmmm ... an assistant captain who makes 60 percent of the decisions and a captain who only takes the other 40 percent? Nothing against Haas, who has all the credentials for the position, but we've got to wonder whether the message will become muddled with two messengers. Then again, we've always thought the captain's role is overstated. If Couples and Haas approach the job like predecessor Jack Nicklaus -- which is to say, if they simply keep the team loose and let the players choose their playing partners -- there won't be much cause for concern.

16. Pain in SpainAfter missing the last seven months with shoulder and groin injuries, Jose Maria Olazabal returned to action this week, playing on a sponsor's exemption at the Andalucia Open in his native Spain. His week should be considered a success having just made the cut, although rounds of 71-72-71-76 left him in a share of 61st place out of 69 total finishers.

"I'm going to take it on a weekly basis, test myself and see if I can cope with competition again," Olazabal said prior to the opening round. "When you have total lack of mobility you hit bottom, for sure."

The two-time Masters champ said he remains optimistic that he will be able to tee it up at Augusta in two weeks. If he was seeking inspiration in returning from the injuries, he needed only look atop the leaderboard. Just two years removed from a career-threatening bout of vertigo, Thomas Levet defeated Oliver Fisher on the first playoff hole for his first victory since the 2004 Scottish Open.

17. Cardinal ruleThe hot gossip making the rounds in blogs around the world this week? This nugget from a Sports Illustrated piece about Stanford University twin basketball players Robin and Brook Lopez:

    Robin is dating Stanford's current most famous female coed, golf phenom Michelle Wie, although both have tried to keep things as quiet as possible.

We're not in the business of opining on the social lives of college kids, so we'll only offer the following on this "news": For those who have complained that Wie's dogged pursuit of a professional golf career was all too much, too soon, for those who contend that she needed a break from the rigorous life of being a child prodigy, this can only be considered a positive development for a golfer who has suffered various setbacks from recent injuries and from the outside looking in, could use some good things happening in her life.

18. Quote of the week"I already told [Paul] Azinger, 'If you pick me for the Ryder Cup, you're in for the Presidents Cup.' You know, we could do that."
-- Fred Couples, on the possibility of the Ryder and Presidents Cup captains using their selections on each other.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.