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PGA Tour in high demand for international players

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By Doug Ferguson
Associated Press Golf Writer

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Joe Durant and Rich Beem have been writing to PGA Tour events for an exemption after losing their full status last year. They realize this is not the best time to get their hopes up.

Among those who got a tee time at Riviera next week are Jeev Milkha Singh of India, Oliver Wilson of England and Ryo Ishikawa of Japan. A few weeks later, Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland and Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain will be at the Honda Classic.

And later down the road at the Shell Houston Open?

"With the way things are shaking out this year - and this is one of those problems you want to have - we could be heavy on international players for all of our exemptions," tournament director Steve Timms said Tuesday.

This is not a case of American jobs being taken away.

Nearly every tournament is required to give four of its eight sponsor exemptions to PGA Tour members or those who earned a card last year through Q-school or the Nationwide Tour and are low in the pecking order. Besides, players like Durant and Beem would not be in a position of asking if they had performed better last year. They know that.

But it is another example of the changing landscape in golf and on the PGA Tour.

Ten years ago, 33 Americans were among the top 50 in the world ranking. Today there are 13 Americans in the top 50.

Since 1983, tournaments have set aside two spots for a foreign exemption designated by the commissioner. There were 21 foreign-born PGA Tour members that year, compared with 70 active international players from 19 countries who are members this year.

Are the commissioner's foreign exemptions still necessary in this era of global golf?

Probably not.

Then again, the tour typically is prudent with those exemptions and encourages tournaments to use their four unrestricted exemptions on international players. If the foreign exemptions are not used, those spots are put back in the pot for PGA Tour members.

"I can tell you that we have given out half the number of foreign exemptions that we gave out five or six years ago," said Andy Pazder, the tour's senior vice president of competition.

He estimated that less than one-third of all foreign exemptions are used during the year.

The international influx over the next month is more a product of having all the World Golf Championships and three of the four major championships in the United States.

When the Accenture Match Play Championship gets under way on Feb. 25, odds are at least 20 players in the 64-man field will not be members of the PGA Tour.

Instead of flying halfway around the world to Arizona for what could be just one round, most of them would like to arrive a week early and compete in a regular tournament - the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, in this case.

And for the last decade, Northern Trust tournament director Tom Pulchinski has been a popular man.

His tournament has preceded Match Play every year since 1999, except the year Match Play went to Australia. Pulchinski gets more requests from overseas than he has spots available.

"We try to get the best players in the world," he said.

He used his unrestricted exemptions on Singh, Wilson and Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland (the fourth spot is now the Charlie Sifford Exemption and used for a minority, this year being Vincent Johnson). The two foreign exemptions from the commissioner's office went to Ishikawa, the 17-year-old phenom, and Soren Hansen.

For those baffled that Rory McIlroy at No. 15 in the world did not get a spot, the 19-year-old from Northern Ireland only two weeks ago won in Dubai and was simply not ranked high enough when Pulchinski had to make his selections.

The Honda Classic, meanwhile, is working under new dynamics this year.

It has led off the Florida Swing the last two years, with the WGC event in Doral at the end of March. This year, however, the Honda Classic has been squeezed between two World Golf Championships. International players probably don't want to crisscross the ocean for two WGC events that are three weeks apart.

"We knew going in that moving in front of Doral, we would be heavy with international requests," tournament director Ken Kennerly said. "We made a strategic decision to use as many exemptions as we could for international players. Then we reached out to the PGA Tour."

The Honda Classic had one commissioner's foreign exemptions in 2008. This year, it used them on McIlroy and Jimenez, while two of its unrestricted picks went to Clarke and Shingo Katayama of Japan (the other two free picks were used on Erik Compton, the double heart transplant player from south Florida, and Hawaii teen Tadd Fujikawa).

When the Shell Houston Open moved in 2007 to the week before the Masters, Timms knew what to expect.

In addition to its usual list of exemptions, Houston now has four special exemptions set aside for up to four international players in the top 100 of the world ranking who are playing in the Masters.

Among the possibilities: McIlroy, Singh, Lee Westwood, Alvaro Quiros, Martin Kaymer, Robert Karlsson and Henrik Stenson. The latter two are in the top 10 in the world ranking, making them tough to ignore.

"It's a challenge to accommodate everyone," Timms said.

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