Let's ring out the old and ring in the new

Aging pros with lifetime exemptions only clutter up a course, or so claims the PGA, which wants to sweep out the over-the-hill champs to make room for the rabbits
February 27, 1978

Among the 147 players who teed off in the opening round of last week's Los Angeles Open was Jim Ferrier, a 63-year-old Australian who now lives in Burbank. Ferrier did not win the tournament—Gil Morgan did—nor did he survive the 36-hole cut. This surprised no one. Jim Ferrier has not made a cut since January of 1973 when he finished 74th in the Phoenix Open and he has not made a dime on the tour since January 1972 when he finished 66th in the San Diego Open and earned $214.28.

Dave Nevatt did not play in the Los Angeles Open, much as he wanted to. Nevatt is 21, a first-year pro from Merced, Calif., about 260 miles north of Burbank. Nevatt has not made a dime from golf this year either, but for a different reason than Ferrier's. He has not played in a single tournament. Three times Nevatt has missed qualifying by a single stroke.

Ferrier does not have to qualify. As the winner of the 1947 PGA championship, Ferrier enjoys a lifetime exemption. All he has to do is walk to the 1st tee on Thursday morning and fire away.

Ferrier and Nevatt do not know each other, but last week both were in the eye of golfs biggest hurricane since the war for power between the touring pros and the parent PGA 10 years ago. The 10-member PGA tour policy board recently announced it was establishing certain performance standards for 1979 that those with lifetime qualifying exemptions would have to meet. In order to retain their exemptions they would have to average $666.66 in prize money per tournament, for as many events as they chose to enter. Even this minimal criterion seems well beyond the capabilities of Ferrier and several other players in his category. So 13 of them hired Houston attorney Jack McConn, a brother-in-law of Jackie Burke Jr., one of the exempt players, and filed suit against the PGA.

"Our argument will be that when you paid your entry fee for a U.S. Open or PGA, you did so with the understanding that if you won, you collected three things," says McConn. "One was a trophy, two was the money and three was a lifetime exemption. That was, in effect, a contract, and now it is being broken."

Boiled down, the PGA defense is that for the good of the tour, some of the deadwood has to be cleared out. Commissioner Deane Beman calls the tour's performance standards part of an evolutionary process that began when the granting of lifetime exemptions was abolished in 1970. "There are standards for every other category of player," Beman says, "and we feel there should be some for players with lifetime exemptions."

Ed Sneed, one of four players on the policy board, points out that no one has been able to trace the origin of the lifetime exemption. "We searched through the archives," he says. "There is nothing in writing."

Jack Nicklaus sympathizes with the older players but at the same time understands what Beman and the board are trying to accomplish. However, many of the younger players on the tour can't understand why some of the older pros want to keep embarrassing themselves with their high tournament scores. "I recognize that they were once the backbone of the tour," says Danny Edwards. "No one wants to take anything away from them, but if they can't play anymore, it's unfair that they keep doing so just because they won one tournament once."

The legal argument eventually will be settled in Harris County (Houston), Texas, but the ethical argument was very much on trial at the L.A. Open. Ferrier was not the only man with a lifetime exemption to show up at the Riviera Country Club. Seven of the elderly exemptees did, prompting one veteran to say, "I wish some of the guys would cool it."

Among the starters was Lionel Hebert. Lionel is Exhibit A on the PGA list. During the last two years he has played in 50 tournaments and earned only $3,208. That's $64.16 per tournament—not even caddie fees. Before Los Angeles, Hebert had played in four events this season and had missed the cut every time. The other exempt veterans who entered at Riviera were Hebert's brother Jay, Dow Finsterwald, Jack Fleck, Jerry Barber and Orville Moody. Among them they had played in 15 events, and not one had made a cut. "Heck," says Moody, who is not one of those suing the PGA, "if I was whoever thought up the new rule, I'd want me off the tour too."

Meanwhile, across town on Monday, Dave Nevatt and 63 other rabbits—the PGA now prefers to call them non-exempt players—were at the Oakmont Club in Glendale, battling for the 17 available starting berths in the L.A. Open. On Tuesday another 64 were at the L.A. Country Club, competing for 17 more spots. Among those at Oakmont were Jack Renner, 26th on the money list after a sixth-place finish at Phoenix and an 11th at San Diego; Don Pooley, 42nd in earnings; and Phil Hancock, who last year tied for second behind Jerry Pate in the Southern Open. And in the qualifying field at the L.A. Country Club were Bob Wynn, a veteran rabbit who was 25th on the money list, and Curtis Strange, second at Pensacola last year.

"There are a lot of guys out here most Mondays who can win," said Rick Acton, a 32-year-old non-exempt player who qualified at Oakmont. "Renner was one stroke off the lead in San Diego with nine holes left. Tim Simpson is going to be a super player, as he proved at the Hope [a ninth-place finish]."

It was cool on Monday, and thunderstorms kept interrupting play. Nevatt shot a 73, then retired to the putting green to await his fate. By late afternoon 15 rabbits at Oakmont had shot 72 or better, while 10 others were at 73. All 10 assembled on the 1st tee for a playoff for the two remaining spots in the tournament, and went off in two fivesomes. Nevatt was in the second group.

The 1st hole at Oakmont is a par-5, barely reachable in two. Nevatt drove well enough, and as he prepared to hit his second shot there were shouts from the green. Good news for someone, bad for the rest. Nevatt hit his second shot, as did the others, and then came the second jolt. One of the rabbits exploded out of a trap and into the cup for an eagle. Nevatt could manage only a par, and after one hole, the eagle and two birdies got the two qualifying spots plus first alternate.

The survivors plowed on. In tournaments such as the L.A. Open, it is not unusual to have four or five last-minute dropouts. Nevatt made another par, but someone else made a birdie, and the third alternate spot was gone—even-numbered spots would go to the qualifiers at the L.A. Country Club. Bogeys reduced the battle for fifth alternate to two players—Nevatt and Warren Chancellor. After making two more pars, Nevatt finally made a birdie on the 5th hole to win. He had shot a 73 plus four pars and a birdie—and all he had was the fifth alternate spot.

The next morning Nevatt went to Riviera to practice and to see who, if anyone, might drop out. Andy Bean, complaining of a sore shoulder, was the first to withdraw. When Howard Twitty and Fuzzy Zoeller also canceled, Nevatt was suddenly second alternate behind Jack Spradlin, who had played in three events and earned $2,733 this year. Then on Wednesday evening Sam Snead, one of those suing the PGA, even though Sam, because of sponsor invitations, would never have a problem getting into a tournament, endeared himself to all rabbits. "My foot hurts too much for me to go 18," he told the officials. "Give my spot to one of the kids." Spradlin was in, and Nevatt was now first alternate.

But that was as close as he got. Starting time Thursday morning was seven o'clock, and Nevatt was there. He spent his entire time—until the last groups teed off at 12:36 p.m.—shuttling between the 1st and 10th tees, hoping someone would fail to show. Nevatt's hopes soared when there was a rumor that Bob Murphy might cancel. Murphy, his back aching, had withdrawn from the pro-am the day before. Had anybody seen Murphy? Alas for Nevatt, he appeared 10 minutes before tee time, wearing a windbreaker to keep his back warm.

Ferrier, who refused to discuss the matter of his lifetime exemption, teed off at midday. A tall, weather-beaten man, along the lines of Bear Bryant, he walked the edges of the fairways in constant conversation with his wife Norma, who kept pace just outside the ropes. It was a pleasant sight, something out of a club championship, perhaps, or the PGA Seniors.

Which, of course, is what many people wish Ferrier would concentrate on. Riviera was just too much golf course for Ferrier and Jerry Barber, 51, both of whom were unable to reach the long par-4s in two. Ferrier struggled home in 83. Even so, that was one stroke better than Lionel Hebert, who had an 84. Brother Jay had 80, Barber and Finsterwald 78s. Of the older lifetime exemptees, Jack Fleck, 56, who beat Ben Hogan in a memorable playoff for the 1955 U.S. Open Championship, was the hero with a two-over-par 73.

The next day Lionel Hebert added a 75 to his 84 and, of course, missed the cut. So did brother Jay, Finsterwald, Barber and Moody. Only Fleck maintained the dignity of the older players with lifetime exemptions, his 74 giving him two excellent rounds at Riviera. With a 77 on Saturday and a 79 on Sunday, Fleck finished with a score of 303, good for 68th place and $330.

And Ferrier? On Friday he was scheduled to tee off at 7:24, but 7:24 came and went. Ferrier did not show up. For Dave Nevatt, who was already airborne on his way to Florida and a Monday qualifying tournament for the Jackie Gleason Inverrary, that was one day too late.

TWO PHOTOSUsing his free ticket, Jim Ferrier (above) shot an 83 at L.A. and then withdrew, but it was one day too late for first alternate Dave Nevatt.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)