Landing an Exemption


It was a three-page, handwritten letter that did it for Tim Herron. Not a playing career that spans two decades or four PGA Tour titles or one of the most endearing nicknames in the game.

For Manuel Villegas, brother of Tour star Camilo, it was a simple phone call that landed him one of the toughest tickets in sports. Whatever the tonic, one of the most unscientific and exhausting aspects of golf, at least for tournaments directors, almost always boils down to a personal touch.

“John Daly called me in October and said, ‘I’m available for whatever you need me to do,’” Puerto Rico Open tournament director Sidney Wolf said.

It’s little surprise that JD was granted a sponsor exemption into the Puerto Rico event. He’s a “name” player that puts butts in bleachers and has no problem showing a little appreciation, and this year more than any tournament directors want to feel it.

The art of doling out exemptions has always been an inexact science. As a general rule, former champions at a particular event get a close look – Todd Hamilton’s invite this week at the Honda Classic would qualify – and down-on-their-luck former major champions are low-hanging fruit. Call it the John Daly exemption.

“It’s so hard this year because there are so many names that don’t have priority,” said Ken Kennerly, the executive director of the Honda Classic and a long-time player manager on Tour. “Some of my own clients that don’t have exemptions didn’t get in. It’s tough.”

In many ways sponsor exemptions are occupational hazards for tournament directors, even more so than a bear economy or a tee sheet that is bear of the names Tiger or Phil, because it’s never easy to shoehorn the list of players who deserve an exemption into the narrow confines of the half-dozen available exemptions.

That truth is compounded this year because of all the established players without full status, including headliners David Duval, Rocco Mediate, Chris DiMarco and Hamilton.

For this year’s Puerto Rico Open, which will be played opposite next week’s WGC-CA Championship, Wolf said he received over 40 letters, e-mails or phone calls looking for a spot in his field. That’s more than double what he normally gets.

“We never got anything like that before,” Wolf said. “Next year the most creative request will get an exemption. We’ll have a contest.”

In many ways the art of landing a sponsor exemption has already become a contest.

One player produced a 5-minute video for a spot in the Quail Hollow Championship a few years ago explaining how he would take the time to teach the other competitors the proper way to be southern, like how to wear a camouflaged hat or eat BBQ, while others offer to hold clinics and entertain sponsors.

Kennerly, uniquely positioned to see the issue from both sides, said he has stressed to his clients for years the need to engage tournament directors. “I spoke to the Q-School and Nationwide (Tour) class, and said, ‘Guys, just take the time to reach out to these tournaments.’”

It’s a lesson, however, that some young players are having a hard time learning. Wolf recalls a player who sent a form letter asking for an exemption last year and he called the player’s manager and told him his man needed to do better.

“The player called me, which was great. But then this year I get another form letter from the kid,” Wolf sighs.

Gerald Goodman, the tournament director for the Transitions Championship which will be played later this month near Tampa, Fla., said he received over 100 requests this year, and points out that the exemptions he’s already given out – Duval, Mediate, DiMarco and Daly – all sent hand-written letters and followed up with a phone call.

Of course, personal communication goes both ways. For every one exemption a tournament doles out a tournament director has to tell a dozen or so other players that they’re out. Never an easy “Dr. John” moment.

“It’s extremely hard to call a player and tell them there is no spot for them,” Goodman said. “I try to go down the method of why we made the decision. I face the music. I man up and I think they appreciate that. They just want to be talked to.”

Every job has a “cringe moment,” and sponsor exemptions are a tournament directors cold chill, so much so one director once mused, “I’d give up all my exemptions for one right of refusal. Him? Oh no, he can’t play here.”

No such luck, but maybe if he wrote a hand-written letter to commissioner Tim Finchem the Tour would consider it.