John Daly’s unfortunate disaster at Innisbrook revives the debate over sponsor’s exemptions

John Daly tees off during the second round of AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He would miss the cut.
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ORLANDO — You don’t want to step on a guy when he’s down, and there’s no reason to criticize John Daly for shooting a 90 last week in the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook. That score was inflated thanks to a 12 on one hole and what he said was a full-blown case of the putting yips.

Daly’s unfortunate disaster is only notable because he was playing on a sponsor’s exemption. His performance revives the debate over who should receive sponsor’s exemptions among the usual assortment of rising stars, washed-up former champs, and friends of the sponsor or someone else.

It’s pretty simple. It’s the sponsor’s tournament, so the sponsor should choose — end of debate. Daly had a bad week. It happens. He wasn’t trying to shoot 90. If a sponsor gives the occasional spot to a sideshow, such as former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien or Michelle Wie or Annika Sorenstam, so be it. Anyone who sells tickets or helps promote the tournament is fair game. Golf was better for having Annika play at Colonial.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with a watchdog keeping track of who’s getting the exemptions. When Ray Halbritter, CEO of Turning Stone Resort & Casino in New York and founder of the PGA Tour's Turning Stone Resort Championship was going to use one of the exemptions to play in the tournament himself a few years back, the public backlash forced him to step down. He wasn’t even a scratch golfer. It was a bad, ego-driven idea, and when he went out and shot 103, it would’ve left a bad taste in a lot of mouths.

Daly didn’t do that, despite his 90. So he’ll turn 48 next month. So he has a history of injuries, a record number of withdrawals and makes no effort to regain any tour status by going to Q-school or Monday qualifying. So what? Valspar wanted him. That’s all that matters. Our opinions don’t.

Daly received 21 exemptions over the previous three years — six in 2011 (one cut made); eight in 2012 (six cuts made) and seven last year (three cuts made). He has received three passes this year. He made one cut, finishing 32nd at the Sony Hawaiian Open. As embarrassing as Daly’s 90 was, it did get front-page treatment in the sports world, and it did draw attention to Valspar. So maybe he helped, after all, since the absence of Tiger, Phil and Rory left the tournament slightly bereft of media play.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational this week at Bay Hill gets 21 exemptions to distribute — most tournaments get only four, but as an invitational the API plays by different rules — and passed them out to a wide range of players, including tournament host Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders and former major champions Lee Janzen, Trevor Immelman, Padraig Harrington and Retief Goosen. Past major winners always add a little luster to a field. The API annually gives a spot to the Southern Amateur champ, and this year that’s Oklahoma State’s Zachary Olsen.

I’ve been charting who gets exemptions for the last few years. I call it the X Men Derby. The guys with the most exemptions have been Brad Faxon, Scott McCarron and Joe Ogilvie with 11 in 2011; David Duval, 12 in 2012; and Jordan Spieth and Camillo Villegas with nine last year. This year’s X Men Derby leaders aren’t at all who you’d expect. Rookie Max Homa, a University of California alum, and Brooks Koepka, a former Florida State University star who packed his bags for Europe’s Challenge Tour, lead the standings with six exemptions apiece thus far.

Koepka has made three cuts and tops the list of money won by players competing on exemptions with $270,345. He earned most of that from a third-place finish at the Open last fall, when he led the tournament after the second- and third-rounds before Jimmy Walker ultimately won it.

Tour veteran Chad Campbell is next with five exemptions, former University of Alabama golfer Justin Thomas has four, and 11 players have received three, including WGC-Match Play sensation Victor Dubuisson of France; Chris DiMarco; Ogilvie; Duval; Paul Casey; Kevin Tway, Rickey Barnes and Peter Uihlein. Tway and Uihlein are the only ones in that group who haven’t made at least one cut with three exemptions.

The other way for non-tour members to get into tournaments is by Monday qualifying, in which typically more than 100 golfers play an 18-hole round and the guys who shoot the four lowest scores get into the field.

Jason Allred is the poster boy of the Monday men, having played his way into the Northern Trust Open at Riviera and finished third. Chris Smith has successfully Monday-qualified three times this season, while Kyle Reifers, Frank Lickliter and Eric Axley have done it twice. Well done, gents.

Here are the top ten money lists from each group:

Sponsor’s Exemptions
1. Brooks Koepka: $270,375
2. Matteo Manassero: $243,000
3. Victor Dubuisson: $155,306
4. Justin Thomas: $144,816
5. Max Homa: $135,000
6. Robert Karlsson: $121,916
7. Will Wilcox: $119,000
8. Hideto Tanihara: $119,00
9. Rickey Barnes: $117,400
10. Paul Casey: $94,800

Monday Qualifiers
1. Jason Allred: $388,600
2. Jay McLuen: $84,171
3. Tim Petrovic: $25,833
4. Eric Axley: $24,102
5. Chris Smith: $21,080
6. Kevin Tway: $19,000
7. Troy Merritt: $15,600
8. Len Mattiace: $14,660
9. Derek Broadaway: $13,671
10. Derek Fathauer: $13,320

Let’s check the Van Cynical Mailbag:

Van Cynical, Here’s a slow-play solution. Pair Kevin Na and Ben Crane off second behind Rory Sabbatini and Robert Garrigus, then let them (Na and Crane) play on the clock the entire round. — Tom Davenport via Twitter

Brilliant concept, T.D. I second the idea. It’s not too much different from what Brandt Snedeker admitted in a televised interview with David Feherty, that when his group is put on the clock because of a slow player (Brandt is very quick), Brandt said he intentionally slows down to keep the offending player on the clock longer and increase the slowpoke’s chances of drawing a penalty.

Vans, There’s a whole heck of a lot wrong with 18 under par winning tournaments. Tough courses are far more fun for us fans. — Brian Rosenwald via Twitter

I stand corrected, Rosebud. I forgot how lousy the 2000 PGA Championship was when Tiger Woods shot 18 under and tied Bob May and they had a boring playoff. Nobody liked the 1990 British Open at St. Andrews, either, where Nick Faldo staked out his own new era by posting 18 under and beat nobodies Greg Norman and Payne Stewart in a wild shootout. And there was that new kid firing 18 under at the Masters in 1997 and hitting wedge into every green. He ruined golf for the next 17 years.

Now that baseball’s Opening Day approaches, remind me again when the PGA Tour officially starts. Is it August? — Chad Rucker via Twitter

I see you’re still suffering from split-season trauma, or splitosis as some call it. A lot of folks have trouble realizing that we’re six months into the 2014 PGA Tour season, which began in mid-October with the Open and kicked off The Jimmy Walker Era. But we’re still languishing a few weeks away from the Masters, the official start of the golf season for some purists. I like your ironic point, Ruckster. Golf should take that crazy starting day in October an go all in and make it a real Opening Day with banners and lemonade and pomp and circumstance and crusty Hall of Fame greats hitting ceremonial first tee shots or the Queen of England parachuting in. Or something.

Van Sickle, Who’s the early favorite for the Masters? — DougS via email

I’m tempted to answer nobody. Let’s just say that all the usual suspects don’t appear primed to play their best. Jason Day, a popular pick, has a sore thumb and just WD’d from Bay Hill. Justin Rose faded with a chance to win on the final nine at Innisbrook, which was disappointing. I’ll go with Patrick Reed — two wins this year and he’s driving it long and on a string and he’s got a winner’s attitude. That’s a strong combo platter.

Van Cynical, What took the USGA until 2021 to go back to Torrey Pines for the Open? Wasn’t the last one there a huge hit? — EMUguy via email

Good point, Emu. The USGA discovered prime time commercial rates thanks to the three-hour time difference, and of course there was Tiger in all his limping, wincing, heroic glory, plus the beauty of La Jolla. It was a big win except for the part about a financially strapped local government operating the course. I’d guess it was political squabbling and bureaucratic interference that kept Torrey Pines off the candidate list. Good luck in ’21.