On the subject of sponsors' exemptions, a PGA Tour player once said, "I had a nightmare that Jack Nicklaus had 144 sons and none of us could get in the field at Doral." The quip was a joke aimed at Nicklaus, who wasn't shy about wielding his clout to get sons Jackie and Gary into PGA Tour fields. Arnold Palmer has done the same for his grandson Sam Saunders, who in 2011 was given the maximum allotment of seven exemptions for non-Tour members for a second straight year.
The Tour has always been a meritocracy: no guaranteed contracts, no signing bonuses. You earn what you win, and you get playing opportunities based on those winnings. Sponsors' exemptions—tournament berths a sponsor may award to anyone—stand in stark contrast. They're a free ride. But as the Tour considers no longer giving top Q school finishers a Tour card, every tournament opening becomes that much more valuable, which leads one to wonder, Who is getting those exemptions and how well are they playing once they have them?
A quick review shows that it pays to be a good guy—or a bad boy. Brad Faxon received the most sponsors' exemptions (11) this year. Faxon missed all 11 cuts, turned 50 and moved on to senior golf. Faxon earned those passes for 20-plus years of being nice to sponsors and pro-am partners, and rarely saying no to anyone. Veterans Joe Ogilvie and Scott McCarron were second on the list with nine exemptions each, and like Faxon, they are also personable, smart guys. Ogilvie used his exemptions to win more than $530,000. At the other end of the spectrum, John Daly got seven exemptions, complained about not getting more and made three cuts.
The most opportunistic player was rookie Scott Stallings, who got an exemption into the Transitions Championship and finished third. That $374,000 payday helped him move up the money list and therefore get into more tournaments. He won at Greenbrier. Not bad.
Stallings is the exception. In 28 Tour stops, 247 exemptions were awarded, an average of almost nine per event. Only 100 made the cut, and just eight finished in the top 10. If the Tour is going to eliminate Q school exemptions, then maybe the sponsor spots shouldn't be based on whom you know, who you are or who you used to be. Maybe some of those openings should go toward developing young players. But hurry: Nicklaus has 21 grandkids.
2011 SPONSORS EXEMPTIONS
PLAYER (FIRST-PLACE VOTES)
Luke Donald (13)
Rory McIlroy (2)
GOLF PLUS will next appear in the Nov. 28 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
GOLF MAGAZINE TOP 100 TEACHERS POLL
Who gets your vote for PGA Tour Player of the Year?
Luke Donald 49%
Keegan Bradley 21%
Webb Simpson 18%
Five others received 2.5% each.