There is, however, one notable exception. Ernie Els is not playing in the 2012 Masters. It's the first one he'll miss since first competing in 1994. The casual golf fan might wonder why Els has been left out of this year's field. For year's he was one of the game's best players. A more avid fan is aware that Ernie's game has dropped off significantly in the last few season, largely because of bad putting. In short, his poor play (and that he isn't a Masters Champion) has kept him out of the 2012 tournament.
There are 19 different ways one can qualify to play in the Masters. Five of those criteria are reserved for amateur players. That leaves 14 different routes for a professional golfer to get into the field. I won't list them all, but in short outside of being a past Champion at Augusta, or having won any other major in the last 5 years, you have to be one of the best players in the world. Many players that qualify for Augusta, qualify in more than one category. For example, a player that has won a PGA Tour event in the last year might also ranked in the top 50 players on the Official World Golf Ranking. Both of those characteristics get you an invite to the Masters.
Ernie Els, failed to achieve any status in all 14 of those categories. It sounds surprising. It almost seems unfair. But Ernie is on the outside looking in, while there are some less accomplished players competing this week. In fact, it could be argued that there are some players that aren't as good as Els playing this week. Harrison Frazar sits at 90th in the world, but is in the field as a 2011 PGA Tour winner. Ryan Palmer, who finished in the top 16 at last year's Masters is in as well. Palmer ranks 88th in the world. Els is 58th.
There was a movement in the golf world over the last few weeks to get Ernie Els into the Masters. Fans hoped that Augusta National would extend a special invite to Els (as they did this year to Ryo Ishikawa, who wouldn't have otherwise qualified). However, it never happened.
Ernie Els is one of my all-time favourite players. He's a Hall of Famer, a 3-time Major Champion and arguably one of the greatest 20 golfers of all time. But, I agree that he should not be given an special exemption into the Masters. For the record, I don't think Ishikawa should have received one either.
The qualifications for the Masters are clear and fair. Ernie simply didn't play well enough to make the cut. He had the same opportunity as everyone else in professional golf. The argument for extending Els an invite mostly boiled down to cries of "Come on, it's Ernie." Unfortunately, being well-liked isn't one of Augusta's criteria. It's true that Els has a very strong track record at Augusta finishing in the top 6, 5 years in a row. But only champions are invited back every year. There are other players with similar careers and track records as Els that aren't in this year's field. Fellow South African Retief Goosen is a two time US Open Champion and has finished 2nd, T2 and T3 twice at Augusta, and is also not invited this year. Goosen is actually 4 spots closer than Ernie, at #54 in the world.
Part of what makes The Masters special is that it's the barometer for golf. If you get invited to the Masters you're part of golf's landscape at this moment. Anyone who gets an invite has earned it in one way or another. The Masters has a fairly limited field and getting in genuinely means something to those players. There were a number of moments in the 2011 season when a first time PGA Tour winner commented in his post-victory interview that he was excited to finally win on tour because it guaranteed them a spot in the Masters the following year.
The field is primarily comprised of the game's current crop of truly elite talent. The amateurs in the field represent the game's future and the former champions are the tournament's past. There isn't any room for handouts.
(A note on Ishikawa. It is widely believed he was given an invite as a business move by Augusta National. The 20 year old Ishikawa is obviously a big star in Japan. Adding him to the field should create additional interest in that part of the world. I don't agree with this free invitation, either, but at least Augusta National, and probably golf as a whole, stand to gain from it. For what it's worth, Ishikawa is 53rd in the world.)