Sponsor’s exemptions are all about hope.
Kevin Weickel of the Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Disney World understands that truth as intimately as any tournament director on the PGA Tour. Over the years, the Disney event has often been the last full-field event on the schedule.
That makes Weickel practiced in the art of dispensing hope.
If you missed it earlier this week, Weickel and the tournament committee put a capital H in hope when they announced that Miami’s Erik Compton was being awarded their final sponsor’s exemption to next week’s event. He also received an exemption from this event last year.
Compton’s story has been well documented, how he hasn’t given up hope of winning his PGA Tour card despite two heart transplant surgeries. He will turn 30 the day before the Children’s Miracle Network Classic begins. What Weickel brought to the tournament for a second year was the special kind of hope Compton gives others.
On Tuesday afternoon, Compton will visit the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando. Last spring, while playing the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Compton visited the same hospital. He met a child there awaiting a heart transplant. He also met a child struggling with a brain injury after an accident.
“Sometimes, it can be tough,” Compton said of the visits. “It puts me in a situation where I remember a lot of stuff I went through, but I know people don’t really have a vision of what’s ahead for them.”
Compton’s parents, Peter and Eli, taught him there’s a special gift he can give hurting families. Eli is the executive director of the Transplant Foundation at the University of Miami. As much as she gives of her time and talent to parents of sick children, she knows she can’t give what Erik can when he walks into a room.
“I don’t do this for myself,” Erik said. “It’s difficult to see people in such tough situations. So many times, people look away. I’m trying to give back, to show there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
A week ago, Weickel was immersed in one of the more difficult decisions the tournament committee has had to make, though he will tell you it’s never easy with seasons at stake, sometimes careers. He sorted through 30 requests for the sponsor exemptions.
“We take the time to examine every candidate and his story,” Weickel said.
When you’re giving out the last sponsor exemptions to the year’s last Tour event, there’s an especially heavy sense of responsibility.
For pros trying to finish among the top 125 on the PGA Tour money list, it’s a last chance to secure their Tour cards for the following season.
The requests for sponsor exemptions can come in like prayer requests.
Weickel’s the guy who answers prayers, or at least serves as the conduit to answered prayers. He makes recommendations to the tournament committee.
The committee presents four sponsor’s exemptions, two restricted, which must go to PGA Tour pros, and two unrestricted.
Rich Beem and Lee Janzen, both major championship winners, got this year’s restricted sponsor exemptions. Haymes Snedeker, older brother to PGA Tour pro Brandt Snedeker, claimed the first unrestricted exemption as winner of Golf Channel’s Big Break X: Michigan.
A week ago, Weickel’s choices for the last sponsor’s exemption included Rickie Fowler, one of the hottest young talents on the planet, and Jamie Lovemark, another promising young talent. They were both coming off a playoff loss to Troy Matteson at the Frys.com Open. There were others in consideration, too, but no choice seemed easy.
“Over the years, it’s uncanny how these things have a way of working themselves out,” Weickel said.
Such was the case this year.
Though Weickel originally expected to award the final sponsor’s exemption in the middle of last week, the Viking Classic’s weather woes provided an opportunity. The tournament committee decided to see how the Viking Classic played out. When the event was canceled, Fowler and Lovemark were able to carry over their top-10 finishes at the Frys.com Open to claim spots at Disney.
Though Compton received an exemption a year ago, his story was no less compelling to Weickel this year. The Children’s Miracle Network’s mission is “creating real miracles by raising funds for children’s hospitals.”
“Erik’s story resonates beyond golf,” Weickel said. “He’s an inspiration for golfers and non-golfers alike.”
Weickel found a man who embodied the hope sponsor exemptions represent.