Sponsors exemptions are often about who you know, not what you’ve done

January 3, 2012

While the PGA Tour is abuzz with talk about proposed changes to Q-school, another route to the tour has been overlooked.

Each event gets a handful of sponsors’ exemptions, and tournament officials can do with them whatever they please. Non-tour members can accept up to seven free passes in a season, but there is no limit for tour members. And there is no watchdog. In this oh-so-political game, it’s often not what you’ve done, but who you know.

In 2011, 270 playing spots were award via sponsors’ exemptions in 31 tournaments. That’s an average of nearly nine spots per tournament — a pretty big number considering how tough it is to win a card through Q-school or the Nationwide Tour.

Of those 270 free passes, players made the cut (and a check) 109 times — that’s 42 percent, not bad. Players finished among the top 10 14 times (that’s five percent), and the best finish by any player competing on an exemption was third place. In all, 26 (9.6 percent) finished among the top 20.

Another overlooked route to the tour is the Monday qualifier, a one-day, 18-hole event in which players compete for three or four spots. Not every tournament has Monday qualifying, and in 2011 the successful Monday qualifiers didn’t fare very well. Only 20 of 91 Monday qualifiers made cuts (22 percent). John Merrick, who was ninth at the Travelers Championship, earned the only top-10 finish by a Monday qualifier. Merrick, Lee Janzen and Michael Letzig were the only players to be successful twice in Monday qualifying this year.

Joe Ogilvie was the king of the sponsors’ exemptions in 2011. While Ogilvie, Scott McCarron and Brad Faxon each received 11 exemptions, Ogilvie was the only one to cash in on the opportunities. He made six cuts in 11 events, and his third-place finish at the Byron Nelson Championship, worth $377,000, was the biggest payday scored by any player receiving an exemption. He won $541,650 in six events and that, combined with 13 other appearances, enabled Ogilvie to finish 116th on the money list and regain exempt status.

Faxon called in a career’s worth of favors for his 11 spots as he waited to turn 50 in late summer and start competing on the Champions Tour. Faxon missed 11 cuts in 11 tries but the work paid off, apparently, as he won a senior event late in the year.

McCarron made six cuts, like Ogilvie, but had only one finish better than 38th, a tie for sixth at the McGladrey Classic that earned him $125,200, more than one-fourth of his winnings for the year. He finished 145th on the money list and is only conditionally exempt for 2012.

Among other notable exemptions …

John Daly received seven exemptions last year and complained when he was turned down for spots at the Bob Hope Classic and Waste Management Phoenix Open. It’ll be interesting to see how many free spots he gets in 2012 — in other words, has he finally worn out his welcome?

He had a televised meltdown at a tournament in Austria, then withdrew from the Australian Open after hitting seven shots into a lake on the 11th hole and running out of golf balls. Daly was seven over par before the disaster. Many observers thought Daly’s conduct was not only unprofessional but premeditated because he was angry after drawing a two-shot penalty for playing the wrong ball — a range ball — from a bunker on the 10th hole.

Australian golf officials were upset enough about the incident to rescind his invitation for the subsequent Australian PGA Championship. Daly has a long history of withdrawing from tournaments before, during and after rounds. Last year, Daly received exemptions into the Farmer’s Insurance Open, Mayakoba Classic, Transitions Championship, Zurich Classic, Colonial Invitational, Travelers Championship and Canadian Open. Though he hasn’t been exempt for years, Daly has not attempted to regain his card by going back to Q-school.

Bud Cauley gave up his final year of eligibility at Alabama to turn pro and apparently knew he was ready. Cauley parlayed four exemptions into a PGA Tour card. He’s exactly the kind of player sponsors’ exemptions should go to — a promising young talent that needs a chance. Cauley received an exemption from the Viking Classic in July, where he finished fourth. He was in contention at the Frys.com Open, where he placed fifth and won $340,000. Those top-10 finishes got him into tour events the following weeks. He was able to bypass Q-school by having more winnings on the non-members’ money list than the player who finished 125th on the official money list. Cauley won $735,150 in eight starts.

Sam Saunders proved for a second straight year that it’s good to have a famous relative. He’s the grandson of Arnold Palmer and was able land his maximum of seven exemptions for a second straight year since dropping out of Clemson. Saunders also landed some Nationwide Tour exemptions. Saunders finished 15th at Pebble Beach, where his grandfather is a part-owner, and 30th at Bay Hill, the tournament his grandfather hosts.

Kevin Tway, son of former PGA champion Bob, scored four exemptions and missed four cuts.

Patrick Cantlay came off a remarkable freshman season at UCLA and enjoyed an even better summer. He was low amateur at the U.S. Open and runner-up at the U.S. Amateur. His stellar play prompted four sponsors’ exemptions, and Cantlay made the cut each time, finishing ninth at the Canadian Open. Had he been a pro, he would’ve won more than $380,000 in his PGA Tour appearances, but Cantlay went back to UCLA for his sophomore year.

Scott Stallings, a former star at Tennessee Tech, got into the Transitions Championship because his friend and mentor, Kenny Perry, helped him get an exemption. Perry has an endorsement deal with Transitions, the eye care company. Stallings contended for the title, finished third and used that good finish as a springboard to get into more tournaments during the summer. He won at Greenbrier and is fully exempt.

Gary Woodland won that Transitions Championship. Like Stallings, he was a Q-school grad the previous year, but he finished third in Phoenix after Waste Management offered him an exemption. Woodland won more than $3.4 million last year, finished in the top 20 on the money list and teamed up with Matt Kuchar to win the World Cup.

Brendan Steele was another young player who needed exemptions early in the year to get into tournaments. He got passes for Riviera and Bay Hill, then won the Valero Texas Open in May.

Rory McIlroy, who won the U.S. Open in June, ironically needed an exemption to defend his title at the Wells Fargo Championship because he decided to drop his PGA Tour membership at the end of 2010.

Sponsor’s exemptions, 2011
(Cuts made in parentheses)
11 Brad Faxon (0)
11 Scott McCarron (6)
11 Joe Ogilvie (6)
7 John Daly (3)
7 Rod Pampling (4)
7 Sam Saunders (2)
5 Will MacKenzie (1)
4 Notah Begay (1)
4 Patrick Cantlay (4)
4 Bud Cauley (3)
4 Erik Compton (3)
4 Morgan Hoffman (2)
4 Kevin Tway (0)
4 Charles Warren (1)
3 Billy Andrade (0)
3 Jay Williamson (1)
3 Joseph Bramlett (0)
3 Todd Hamilton (1)
3 Lee Janzen (2)
3 Colt Knost (1)
3 Scott Piercy (3)
3 Brett Quigley (1)
3 Jeff Quinney (2)
3 Lee Westwood (3)
3 Brett Wetterich (1)

Money Won by Players Playing on Exemptions
$541,650 Joe Ogilvie
$500,804 Bud Cauley
$374,000 Scott Stallings
$369,153 Rod Pampling
$359,112 Adam Hadwin
$251,600 John Cook
$222,650 Gary Woodland
$205,704 Lee Westwood
$204,354 Scott McCarron
$177,375 Shigeki Maruyama
$164,286 John Daly
$155,440 Brett Wetterich
$135,525 Sam Saunders
$112,840 Ben Curtis
$ 88,000 Peter Hanson
$ 82,650 Justin Hicks (Honda)
$ 69,031 Morgan Hoffman
$ 67,786 Josh Teater
$ 61,590 Scott Piercy
$ 55,481 Martin Kaymer

Money won by Monday qualifiers
$190,925 John Merrick
$ 54,987 Frank Lickliter
$ 51,837 Erik Compton
$ 42,000 Mathias Gronberg
$ 29,000 Michael Letzig
$ 17,356 Josh Broadaway
$ 16,336 Robert Gamez
$ 16,087 Erick Justesen
$ 14,430 Andre Stolz
$ 13,542 Troy Kelly