Sponsors exemptions are all about hope

By Randall MellNovember 6, 2009, 2:44 am

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.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”