AKRON, Ohio – This week Firestone Country Club is the gathering place for 49 of the world’s top 50 players. All four reigning major champions are here, as are dozens of other elite names, all with accomplished backgrounds.
It’s an exclusive field with a lucrative purse to match, and it’s the final opportunity for guys to hone their craft before heading to the season’s final major.
And yet, despite all of the pedigree that accompanies the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the biggest story in golf this week revolves around an amateur who missed the cut 2,500 miles away.
Any questions over the merits of Steph Curry’s unrestricted sponsor exemption into this week’s Ellie Mae Classic on the Web.com Tour were roundly silenced by his opening-round 74 that exceeded all expectations. What had the potential to become a cringe-worthy spectacle instead captivated a hefty amount of attention.
The crossover potential was fully realized as Curry had golf fans and non-golf fans alike buzzing about his round on a developmental circuit that some likely had never heard of before.
In essence, the grand experiment worked.
It also got the attention of several of the PGA Tour’s biggest names.
“To be honest, I think it’s pretty special for a two-time MVP to be able to shoot 74 at a pro event and beat other pros,” said Jason Day. “I mean, we play our whole lives and the guy plays basketball and he beats some of the pros. It’s very impressive to see.”
Curry’s inclusion in the field initially drew some resistance, including from professionals who felt he was taking a spot from someone who could better put it to use to pursue his livelihood. But the Web.com field archives show that the “unrestricted” sponsor invites – of which each tournament receives two – often go to players who have no true aspirations of competing week in and week out on Tour.
The other unrestricted spot this week in California went to Colt McNealy, the teenage brother of top-ranked amateur Maverick McNealy, who took top honors in an 18-hole qualifier. The spots simply serve as a tool by which the tournament can bolster its profile, whether by investing in a budding young player or bringing in new fans by the truckload thanks to a certain NBA star.
After a second straight 74, Curry won’t be around for the weekend, and he’ll beat only a handful of players. But his ability to hold his own in a sport he considers a hobby was not lost on those who play it as a job.
“It’s so rare to have a player in another sport of that caliber playing during his career,” said Brendan Steele. “Like, he’s in the prime of his career in the other sport. That’s what I think is so cool about it. There are plenty of guys that will want to play the PGA Tour, Web.com after they’re done and they get to practice for five years or whatever. But he’s in the prime of his career.”
Curry’s effort around TPC Stonebrae had its rocky moments, but he also produced a handful of highlights including a lengthy birdie make after which he channeled Jordan Spieth’s memorable Open exchange by directing his caddie to retrieve the ball from the hole.
The move was noted by the man who first made it famous at Royal Birkdale, and it elicited a wry grin from Spieth after his second round at Firestone.
“I should have posted something about that, but I didn’t see it until today,” Spieth said. “It was pretty cool, really cool to see. You see him fist-pumping out there, and just him talking about how nervous he was when he heard his name called. It just makes us feel a little better when sometimes some of the stuff he does looks like a robot, not exactly human.”
Curry’s performance isn’t designed to open the floodgates for current and former athletes looking to test their game against the pros, nor should it. Few amateurs can keep pace with Curry, who boasts a +0.1 handicap. But then again, not every better-than-scratch handicap can hold his own on a tournament course with galleries lining every fairway.
Whatever negatives may have been bandied about when Curry’s exemption was first announced melted away by the time he rolled in his first birdie putt. This is a win for all parties involved: Curry has acquitted himself well, but at the same time he has shown the vast gulf that separates top amateurs and the best of golf’s triple-A affiliate.
It also gave the circuit some much-needed publicity, put the tournament and sponsor on the lips of thousands and became the biggest golf storyline – even during a week where the PGA Tour’s best are busy vying for a $10 million purse.
“People are paying attention. People are talking about the sport,” said Paul Casey. “It’s brilliant. Do something to help get people talking about the game and grow the game. That’s what those spots for as well, I think.”