Landing an Exemption

By Rex HoggardMarch 4, 2010, 3:19 am

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.

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Bhatia loses U.S. Am match after caddie-cart incident

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 2:21 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – One of the hottest players in amateur golf had his U.S. Amateur run end Wednesday under unusual circumstances.

Akshay Bhatia, the 16-year-old left-hander who has been dominating the junior golf circuit over the past year, squandered a late lead in his eventual 19-hole loss to Bradford Tilley in the Round of 64.

Bhatia was all square against Tilley as they played Pebble Beach’s par-5 14th hole. After knocking his second shot onto the green, Bhatia and his caddie, Chris Darnell, stopped to use the restroom. Bhatia walked up to the green afterward, but Darnell asked what he thought was a USGA official for a ride up to the green.

“The gentleman was wearing a USGA pullover,” Darnell explained afterward. “I asked if I could get a ride to the green to keep up pace, and he said yes. So I hopped on the back, got up to the green, hopped off and thought nothing of it.”

Conditions of the competition prohibit players and caddies from riding on any form of transportation during a stipulated round unless authorized.

It turns out that the cart that Darnell rode on was not driven by a USGA official. Rather, it was just a volunteer wearing USGA apparel. A rules official who was in the area spotted the infraction and assessed Bhatia an adjustment penalty, so instead of winning the hole with a birdie-4 to move 1 up, the match remained all square.


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Even more interesting was what Darnell said happened earlier in the match.

“I had already seen the other caddie in our group do it on the ninth hole,” Darnell said. “Same thing – USGA pullover, drove him from the bathroom up to the fairway – so I assumed it was fine. I didn’t point it out at the time because everything seemed kosher. He had the USGA stuff on, and I didn’t think anything of it.”

Bhatia won the 15th hole to go 1 up, but lost the 17th and 19th holes with bogeys to lose the match. He didn’t blame the outcome on the cart incident.  

“What can you do? I’ll have plenty of opportunities to play in this tournament, so I’m not too upset about it,” he said. “It’s just frustrating because I deserved to win that match. That wasn’t the outcome I wanted, but I can’t do anything about it.”

Bhatia, of Wake Forest, N.C., has been a dominant force in the junior ranks, going back-to-back at the Junior PGA (including this dramatic hole-out), capturing the AJGA Polo, taking the Sage Valley Invitational and reaching the finals of the U.S. Junior.

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1, 2, 3 out: Thornberry, Suh, Morikawa lose at U.S. Am

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 1:14 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The top three players in the world had a tough afternoon Wednesday at Pebble Beach.

Braden Thornberry, Justin Suh and Collin Morikawa – Nos. 1-3, respectively, in the World Amateur Golf Ranking – all lost their Round of 64 matches at the U.S. Amateur.

Thornberry lost, 2 and 1, to Jesus Montenegro of Argentina. As the No. 1 amateur in the world, the Ole Miss senior was in line to receive the McCormack Medal, which would exempt him into both summer Opens in 2019, provided he remains amateur. But now he’ll need to wait and see how the rankings shake out.

Suh and Morikawa could have played each other in the Round of 32, but instead they were both heading home early.


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Suh, a junior at USC, never led in his 1-up loss to Harrison Ott, while Cal's Morikawa lost to another Vanderbilt player, John Augenstein, in 19 holes.

Englishman Matthew Jordan is the fourth-ranked player in the world, but he didn’t make the 36-hole stroke-play cut.

The highest-ranked player remaining is Oklahoma State junior Viktor Hovland, who is ranked fifth. With his college coach, Alan Bratton, on the bag, Hovland beat his Cowboys teammate, Hayden Wood, 3 and 2, to reach the Round of 32.

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Fiery Augenstein outduels Morikawa at U.S. Amateur

By Ryan LavnerAugust 16, 2018, 12:55 am

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Around the Vanderbilt golf team John Augenstein’s nickname is “Flash,” and it’s easy to see why.

The swing loaded with speed.

The on-course charisma.

The big shot in the big moment.

The Commodores junior added another highlight to his growing collection Wednesday, when he defeated world No. 3 Collin Morikawa in 19 holes during a Round of 64 match at the U.S. Amateur.

Out of sorts early at Pebble Beach, Augenstein was 2 down to Morikawa after butchering the short seventh and then misplaying a shot around the green on 8.

Standing on the ninth tee, he turned to Vanderbilt assistant coach/caddie Gator Todd: "I need to play the best 10 holes of my life to beat Collin."

And did he?

“I don’t know,” he said later, smirking, “but I did enough.”

Augenstein won the ninth hole after Morikawa dumped his approach shot into the hazard, drained a 30-footer on 10 to square the match and then took his first lead when he rolled in a 10-footer on 14.

One down with three holes to go, Morikawa stuffed his approach into 16 while Augenstein, trying to play a perfect shot, misjudged the wind and left himself in a difficult position, short and right of the green. Augenstein appeared visibly frustrated once he found his ball, buried in the thick ryegrass short of the green. He told Todd that he didn’t think he’d be able to get inside of Morikawa’s shot about 6 feet away, but he dumped his pitch shot onto the front edge, rode the slope and trickled it into the cup for an unlikely birdie.

“Come on!” he yelled, high-fiving Todd and tossing his wedge at his bag.

“It was beautiful,” Todd said. “I’m not sure how he did that, but pretty cool that it went in.”  


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Morikawa answered by making birdie, then won the 17th with a par before both players halved the home hole with birdies.

On the first extra hole, Augenstein hit his approach to 15 feet while Morikawa left it short. Morikawa raced his first putt by 6 feet and then missed the comebacker to lose the match.

It may not have been the best 10-hole stretch of Augenstein’s career, but after that pep talk on 9 tee, he went 4 under to the house.

“He’s a fiery little dude,” Morikawa said of his 5-foot-8-inch opponent. “You don’t want to get him on the wrong side because you never know what’s going to happen. He’s not going to give shots away.”

The first-round match was a rematch of the Western Amateur quarterfinals two weeks ago, where Augenstein also won, that time by a 4-and-2 margin.

“It’s the most fun format and where I can be my true self – emotional and aggressive and beat people,” Augenstein said.

That’s what he did at the 2017 SECs, where he won the deciding points in both the semifinals and the finals. He starred again a few weeks later at the NCAA Championship, last season went 3-0 in SEC match play, and now has earned a reputation among his teammates as a primetime player.

“I’ve hit a lot of big shots and putts in my career,” said Augenstein, ranked 26th in the world after recently winning the Players Amateur. “I get locked in and focused, and there’s not a shot that I don’t think I can pull off. I’m not scared to fail.”

The comeback victory against Morikawa – a three-time winner last season at Cal and one of the best amateurs in the world – didn’t surprise Todd. He’s seen firsthand how explosive Augenstein can be on the course.

“He’s just fiery,” Todd said. “He does things under pressure that you’re not supposed to do. He’s just a special kid.”

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Fowler (oblique) withdraws from playoff opener

By Will GrayAugust 15, 2018, 8:44 pm

The injury that slowed Rickie Fowler at last week's PGA Championship will keep him out of the first event of the PGA Tour's postseason.

Fowler was reportedly hampered by an oblique injury at Bellerive Country Club, where he started the third round two shots off the lead but faded to a tie for 12th. He confirmed the injury Tuesday in an Instagram post, adding that an MRI revealed a partial tear to his right oblique muscle.

According to Fowler, the injury also affected him at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he tied for 17th. After receiving the test results, he opted to withdraw from The Northern Trust next week at Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey.

"My team and I feel like it's best not to play next week in the Northern Trust," Fowler wrote. "I will be back healthy and competitive ASAP for the FedEx Cup and more than ready for the Ryder Cup!!!"

Fowler is one of eight players who earned automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team when the qualifying window closed last week. His next opportunity to tee it up would be at the 100-man Dell Technologies Championship, where Fowler won in 2015.

Fowler has 12 top-25 finishes in 18 starts, highlighted by runner-up finishes at both the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in the fall and at the Masters. He is currently 17th in the season-long points race, meaning that he's assured of starts in each of the first three playoff events regardless of performance and in good position to qualify for the 30-man Tour Championship for the fourth time in the last five years.