AUGUSTA, Ga. – Ken Duke has certainly paid his dues. He's played golf all over the world, trying to make a living. He earned his PGA Tour card one year, then lost it the next. He even gave up the game for a brief time, selling newspapers to make ends meet. Now, at age 40, he's at the Masters for the first time.
"I feel like I played good enough to get in," he said, pointing to the best season of his career, 2008, when he had five top-10 finishes and cracked the top 25 in 13 PGA Tour events.
Never mind that only the most avid golf fans have ever heard of this man from Hope, Ark. (More are familiar with the town's most famous son, President Bill Clinton).
While Augusta National prides itself on hosting the most exclusive of the majors — only 96 players will tee off in the opening round Thursday — there are some qualifiers who generate whispers of "How did HE get here?" when they're out on the course.
Duke is No. 112 in the world rankings, Briny Baird checks in at 118 and Bubba Watson is 129. None has ever won on the PGA Tour. Heck, Watson didn't even have a victory in three years on the minor-league Nationwide Tour.
Then there's Billy Mayfair, ranked No. 131 and having a miserable season. He's missed the cut in six of his first nine events this year, and just two weeks ago he opened with an 80 at Bay Hill.
But all four will be playing in the first major of the year, rewarded for either consistency or good timing.
Duke made the top 30 on the 2008 money list — one of the myriad standards used by the Masters — while Baird, Watson and Mayfair took advantage of a volatile FedEx Cup points system that allowed them to make the Tour Championship.
"No ranking is fair," Baird said. "They try to do the best they can to make it fair. But you can't compare the PGA Tour to the European Tour to the Asian Tour to the Japanese Tour. None of it is fair. The BCS isn't fair in football, either."
In fairness to those lesser-known players making the field, this Masters includes others with similar, or even worse, spots in world rankings:
• Steve Flesch is No. 120, but he's been assured of a spot ever since finishing in the top 16 at Augusta last year.
• John Merrick (No. 124) claimed his place with a top-eight finish at the 2008 U.S. Open.
• Greg Norman, a part-time player on the regular Tour and ranked 238th, got in with his age-defying performance (54) at last year's British Open, when he led going into the final round before fading to third.
Don't forget Y.E. Yang (No. 150), Michael Campbell (205), Chez Reavie (242) and Todd Hamilton (373). Yang and Reavie got in by winning Tour events during the past year, a standard that Augusta eliminated for a few years, then brought back in modified form. The other two are still reaping the benefits of their improbable major championships — Campbell at the 2005 U.S. Open, Hamilton in the 2004 British Open.
"Top 30 is a great way to get in," Duke said. "It shows how well and consistent you've played all year. The criteria they have right now is really good, I think."
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said there are no plans to change the qualifying format, though the club constantly tinkers with the system.
"We are always comfortable with what we do until we change what we do," Payne quipped. "That's another way of saying ... we look at it every year. Post-Masters, we will spend a whole month looking at nothing but qualifications and whether we need to change it a little bit."
Speaking of changes, the PGA Tour has revamped the FedEx Cup format for the third year in a row, this one geared toward making sure the winner of the $10 million prize is decided at the Tour Championship.
Tiger Woods was so dominant during the inaugural year in 2007 that he skipped the opening playoff event and could have gone AWOL from the Tour Championship and still won. Last year, Vijay Singh won the first two playoff events, building such a large lead that he mathematically clinched the title before the final event, as long as he completed four rounds.
Payne isn't sure if the new format will prompt Augusta National to tweak its own qualifying formula.
"I don't know yet. We haven't had that month," he said, though he added, "I don't know of anything that would lead me to believe that we would make any changes."
Even though Duke and Baird made it to the Masters, they suggested one change: Include anyone who wins the year before on the PGA Tour, even if it's one of those minor tournaments held opposite the majors and World Golf Championship events.
That's the way it used to be. Under the current policy, only those who win full-field tournaments are invited to Augusta. That left out Mark Wilson, winner of the Mayakoba Golf Classic, and Michael Bradley, who took first in the Puerto Rico Open.
"The only thing I would criticize is there are guys who win PGA Tour events and don't get to play here," Baird said after competing in the Par-3 tournament on Wednesday with his young children in tow. "To me, that's terrible. Anybody who wins a PGA tournament should be in this tournament."
Besides, the exclusive — if somewhat quirky — nature of getting into the Masters is part of its charm. Anyone who wins a green jacket receives a lifetime invitation. Several spots are reserved for amateurs in a perpetual tribute to club co-founder Bobby Jones, who never turned pro.
That why there's a gas station owner in the field, Steve Wilson's reward at age 39 for winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, while Davis Love III will be stuck at home.
That's why someone like Duke, a late bloomer if there ever was one, will get to tee off Thursday, knowing he's starting even with all the Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelsons of the world.
"It's been a dream of mine to play here since I was a kid," Duke said. "It's really, really unbelievable."