Thailand's Thongchai handed Masters invite
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Mar 28 (Reuters) Thongchai Jaidee will become the first Thailand player in 35 years to compete at the US Masters after receiving a special invitation for next week's tournament, organisers said.
Thongchai, a twice winner on the European Tour, will follow in the footsteps of compatriot Sukree Onsham, who played at Augusta National in 1970 and 1971.
''It has always been a dream of mine to play in the Masters,'' Thongchai said in a statement released by the Asian Tour.
''I was very excited and felt honoured to receive an invitation from Augusta National. I have played in the other three majors but I've always wanted to play in the Masters.'' The 36-year-old Thongchai was one of four players who received last-minute invitations to take part at Augusta in the first of the year's four majors yesterday.
The former paratrooper has finished in the top three on the Asian Tour's money list for the last five years.
He also became the first Thai golfer to win on the European Tour at the 2004 Malaysian Open, a victory he repeated last year.
South Africa's Rory Sabbatini and American Arron Oberholser qualified for the Masters by being in the top 10 in the PGA Tour money list and the top 50 in the world rankings after the Players Championship on Sunday.
Canada's Stephen Ames, who won the Players title by six shots at the TPC at Sawgrass, earned a three-year Masters exemption with his victory.
A total of 103 players have been invited to compete at Augusta, although officials expect 10 ageing past champions will decline to play in the Apr. 6-9 tournament.
''It's always difficult to predict the exact number but I think you can bank on roughly 10 former winners not teeing off in the first round,'' an Augusta media official said.
Several past champions accept they can no longer be competitive at the Masters, including six-times winner Jack Nicklaus who played his final competitive round at Augusta National last year.
The Masters field comprises 58 Americans and 45 international players. Of those, 16 are debutants and five amateurs.
World number one Tiger Woods, who will be chasing a fifth green jacket next week, will defend the title he won last year in a playoff with fellow American Chris DiMarco.
REUTERS PM RAI0918