By Larry Fine
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - The Masters is widening the weekend field for this week's tournament and granting automatic entry next year to more PGA Tour winners, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said on Wednesday.
The cut for the 93-player field will be expanded by six to the top 50 and ties, along with those within 10 strokes of the lead, to include more players in the final two rounds of the year's first major championship.
"We believe offering more playing opportunities for the participants over the weekend is a positive for everyone involved," said Payne, while adding that the players, fans on site and TV viewers would all benefit.
Payne covered a wide range of issues in his State of the Masters news conference but refrained from taking a position on a proposed rules change that would ban golfers from anchoring long putters against their bodies during the stroke.
With the PGA Tour and PGA of America both opposed to the proposed rule by the U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient governing bodies, Payne was asked for his views.
"We are not a governing body. We are a golf club that puts on a tournament," he said.
"Given the fact that the ruling bodies have not yet declared a decision ... it would be inappropriate for us to express an opinion, other than to say that we hope and believe that they can reach common ground so that golf will continue under one set of rules."
The move to increase the number of PGA Tour winners came after the U.S. tour announced a change in the way it designates its season, starting the new season in late 2013 with six now official events previously called the Fall Series.
Victories in those events will count toward the 2013-2014 Tour Championship, and under Augusta National entry rules would merit automatic berths in the Masters field.
"All of us take great pride and pleasure in seeing a tournament winner beam with pride and excitement knowing that his victory had earned him an invitation to the Masters," Payne said.
Payne ushered in a new era at the stately golf club, considered the spiritual home of U.S. golf, with the admission of its first two female members in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore.
Both new members were attending this Masters. Rice played with three-times winner Phil Mickelson during a casual round on Sunday.
"These two ladies have been very special and it's just been delightful," Payne said. "I hope the experience for Condi and Darla, as members of our club, has been every bit as rewarding and enjoyable for them over the last eight months as it has been for their fellow members. It's just awesome."
The chairman was also gratified by the sensation caused by 14-year-old Guan Tianlang of China, who qualified by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur championship which was born from a joint initiative by the Masters and the Royal & Ancient.
"Guan's qualification and participation in the Masters is an excellent example of why we and the R&A began the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship four years ago, to create heroes in that region who would inspire others to take up the game."
In adding more PGA Tour winners to the field, the Masters organizers decided to cut down in other areas to keep the field at its current size.
Instead of the top 16 finishers in the Masters automatically earning invitations back to Augusta, only the top 12 will be assured of berths the following year.
Only the top four finishers at the U.S. Open will be rewarded with Masters invitations instead of the top eight, and the top 30 on the U.S. Tour money list will no longer get automatic berths.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)