Dec 19 Mastersfield

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At a time when mail boxes are stuffed with holiday cards, bills and the usual batch of junk mail, 17 players might want to be very careful about throwing away unopened letters the next few weeks. One of them could be an invitation to the Masters.

The majority of the field for the 71st Masters was set on Monday when the final world ranking of the year was published. The top 50 at the end of 2006 are eligible, and Bradley Dredge of Wales got the final spot by one-hundredth of a point over Justin Rose.

The list includes 17 players who will be competing for the first time at Augusta National, including Ryder Cup players J.J. Henry, Brett Wetterich and Robert Karlsson of Sweden.

The Masters will be held April 5-8. Phil Mickelson is the defending champion.The field will include two Singhs for the first time – Vijay Singh, the 2000 champion, and Jeev Milkha Singh, who won the season-ending Volvo Masters at Valderrama on the European Tour and is 37th in the world.

Masters invitations are expected to be sent out this week, only it doesn’t look like anything special. Charles Howell III, who grew up in Augusta, once recalled getting his letter and almost throwing it away.

“It’s a plain, normal, white envelope,” Howell said. “Doesn’t say Augusta National, no return address.” Howell would love to get a letter now.

Criteria for the Masters range from major champions over the last five years to top finishes in the other three majors, although the bulk of players comes from the PGA Tour money list (top 40) and the world ranking (top 50).

Howell was No. 52 on the PGA Tour money list and is danger of missing the Masters for the first time since 2001, his rookie season on the PGA Tour. He is No. 82 in the world ranking.

There is still hope for him and players such as Rose and former Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman. The field is not set until the spring, the Monday after the World Golf Championship at Doral. Augusta National will issue invitations to the top 50 in the world and the top 10 on the PGA Tour money list that are published March 26. Rose led The Masters after two rounds in 2004, but has not qualified to play there since. But he is returning to form and won his first European Tour event for four years just before Christmas.

It was not clear how many players were expected to compete at the Masters because Augusta National was waiting to hear from past champions, who are exempt for life. Charles Coody said last year he would not play again, and three-time winner Nick Faldo said this year he would not play because of his new job as the CBS Sports golf analyst.

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