Free Sort Of Pass Playing on a sponsor's exemption can be heavenly or hellish--and sometimes both--as the five chosen ones at the FBR Open showed

February 09, 2004

Buff, blond Ricky Barnes was a hit at last week's FBR Open outside
Phoenix. He clung to the leader board for four rounds, bashed
drives of up to 350 yards and left women swooning in his wake.
("Ricky Barnes has plenty of admirers," clucked The Arizona
Republic. "Some of them even like his game.") When a buxom young
thing stopped him along the ropes last Friday and asked him to
sign her form-fitting, pearl-white, Kenneth Cole shirt, Barnes
hesitated. "Really?" he asked. "That's a pretty nice shirt." ¶
"Who cares?" she squealed. "It's you!" ¶ Credit tournament
director Greg Hoyt for knowing what plays in Phoenix. Barnes, a
pro for only six months, made the FBR field by way of a
sponsor's exemption--a spot awarded to an otherwise nonexempt
player at the discretion of the tournament director. "We tend
to go with the young-gun type," says Hoyt, which pretty much
describes Barnes, an amiable hunk who won the 2002 U.S. Amateur
and made the cut in last year's Masters and U.S. Open.

That's the sunny side of sponsor's exemptions, which some players
refer to derisively as "free lunch." To see the other side you
only need to hang out with 42-year-old Jim Carter as he sorts the
morning mail at his Scottsdale home. "You see the logo on the
envelope and your heart doesn't know whether to jump or sink," he
says. "It's like what happens when kids apply to college."

Carter, a 17-year Tour veteran, hasn't worried about logoed
envelopes since he was a teenager receiving his acceptance letter
from Arizona State. Last year, however, he finished 172nd on the
money list and lost his Tour card. To crack a field now, he has
to swallow his pride and approach tournament directors with hat
in hand. "Nobody wants to be in this position," Carter said last
week, savoring his first sponsor's invite, "but I guess it's my

Some sponsor's exemptions get more attention than others. Recent
recipients are LPGA superstar Annika Sorenstam and 14-year-old
phenom Michelle Wie, but over the years tournament directors have
rolled out the red carpet for high-profile amateurs such as NFL
quarterback Mark Rypien, baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and
NBA enforcer Bill Laimbeer. At the very minimum a celebrity
entrant draws media coverage and gives a slight boost to ticket
sales. Sorenstam and Wie provided an even bigger payoff--huge
television ratings.

None of the five sponsor's exemptions at the FBR Open created
that kind of buzz, but Hoyt got full value out of Barnes, who
drew serious face time on ABC's weekend telecasts. Hoyt was on
solid ground as well when he invited the young English star Paul
Casey, a three-time winner on the European tour who is ranked
27th in the world.

Both players, it should be noted, had followings among the
college crowd that floods the spectator mounds at the TPC of
Scottsdale. (Barnes was a two-time All-America at Arizona. Casey
starred at Arizona State in nearby Tempe.) Local interest was
also a factor in Hoyt's other three selections. Per-Ulrik
Johansson, the Swedish star and two-time Ryder Cupper, played
with Phil Mickelson on Arizona State's 1990 NCAA championship
team. Ted Purdy, a Phoenix native and two-time All-America at
Arizona, is still celebrated in cactus country for winning the
1996 Ping Arizona Intercollegiate by six strokes over a Stanford
kid named Eldrick Woods. As for Carter, he won the 1983 NCAA as
an Arizona State walk-on, took the Arizona Amateur and the
Arizona Open twice each, and four years ago bagged his only Tour
victory in--where else?--Tucson. "Jim's not one of the young
guys," Hoyt explained, "but for 18 years he played every one of
our Monday pro-ams. If I need a player for a radio interview,
he's there. I wanted him in the field."

A player's social skills, you see, are almost as important as his
playing ability in garnering an exemption. It is considered good
form to swing by the sponsor's hospitality tent to shake
corporate hands and pose for pictures. The pro is also expected
to play in one or even two pro-ams. "You do anything you can to
help the tournament director because he's helping you," says
Barnes, who took time out on the Tuesday of FBR week to partner
with a Special Olympics kid in a charity putting contest.

To do less is to jeopardize one's standing with other tournament
directors, whose eyes narrow to slits when they read about
players who take a sponsor's exemption and then refuse to
schmooze, or skip the pro-am, or complain about the late starting
times assigned to invitees, or abandon the courtesy car in the
airport parking lot, or--worst sin of all--shoot a bad round and
angrily withdraw from the tournament. "The most common abuse is
to be arrogant," says retired pro Frank Beard, whose son Michael,
a Nationwide tour rookie, got a sponsor's exemption at last
month's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. "Their thinking is, I deserve
this because I'm good. So I'm not going to the parties. I'm not
doing a clinic."

Few players sink to that level of boorishness because they
recognize the sponsor's exemption for what it is--a free ticket
to a $5 million lottery in which more than half the entrants win
cash. A gifted but unpolished golfer like Barnes, who failed last
fall in the second stage of Q school, can play as many as seven
events a year on a sponsor's exemption. If he gets hot, he can
earn enough money to play on Tour the next year. That's the route
Woods took in 1996, when he won the Las Vegas Invitational.
(Woods, David Gossett, winner of the 2001 John Deere Classic, and
Adam Scott, who took the 2003 Deutsche Bank Championship, are the
only players to win on a sponsor's exemption since 1991, when
Mickelson won the Northern Telecom Open as an amateur.)

The exemptions are even more precious if you're a Tour journeyman
with school-age kids and a mortgage to pay. That's why Carter
spent a week in December writing letters to more than 35
tournament directors. "I used to handwrite all my thank-you
letters to pro-am partners, but this was the first time since
college that I actually had to type something," says Carter, who
parked his laptop on the dining-room table every morning and
wrote in his pajamas and slippers. "I wrote something personal to
each tournament director. I didn't simply write a form letter and
send it to everybody." Carter wrote again after practicing in the
morning, and he wrote yet again after dinner, trying to ignore
the background clamor of his three preteen sons. "Toward the end
my back would be aching and my hands, too. I now understand how
people get carpal tunnel syndrome."

Not every sponsor's exemption comes with writer's cramp. A young
star like Casey, who has both international stature and extensive
experience in the U.S., has tournament directors calling him.
"I've already turned down two of them," he said over lunch last
week at Scottsdale's Grayhawk Golf Club. Sitting across the
table, former Georgia Tech standout Bryce Molder, who plays on
the Nationwide tour, raised an eyebrow. "Next time somebody
calls, would you give him my number?"

In some cases a sponsor's exemption conveys more than the promise
of a week of golf--a fact that would be made clearer if the
tournament director got down on one knee and popped open a little
box holding a ring. The erstwhile Greater Hartford Open (now the
Buick Championship) offers a spot every year to the American
Junior Golf Association Player of the Year. What's more, because
of its midsummer spot on the schedule, when college stars
typically relinquish their amateur status, Hartford has
facilitated the pro debuts of dozens of players. "We've
definitely seen [those opportunities] repaid," says tournament
director Dan Baker, citing return visits by Stewart Cink, David
Duval and Justin Leonard.

Unfortunately there's no sponsor's exemption equivalent of a
prenup. Woods made his pro debut at the '96 Greater Milwaukee
Open but hasn't played there since. He figures even more
prominently in the cautionary tale of Tiger and the Bob Hope
Chrysler Classic. Earl Woods, Tiger's father, requested a
sponsor's exemption at the Hope several times during his son's
amateur career, but the desert pro-am took a pass. That history
of youthful rejection, many believe, explains why Woods has never
played in the Hope and why he reportedly didn't even reply to a
letter of invitation to the 1997 tournament signed by Hope

"It's really a can of worms for the tournament director," says
Beard, who once served on the Tour's policy board. "You get 100
letters, 1,000 calls, there's politics, threats, extortion--and
you've got 20 candidates who are all about the same." Charles
Howell, who bypassed Q school by making more than $1.5 million
with his sponsor's exemptions in 2001, says, "There are a lot of
people out here who think that sponsor's exemptions should be
abolished. This week, it's funny that sponsor's exemptions got in
ahead of the Q school winner and the Number 1 player from the
Nationwide tour." (That would be Mathias Gronberg and Zach
Johnson, respectively, who were the FBR Open's seventh and third

Gossett, who struck a blow for all sponsor's exemptions by
winning at Deere Run, also recalls some grumbling. "There were a
lot of older pros saying, 'They shouldn't be giving these spots
to these kids.' But some of those guys had never won themselves."

Most weeks the sponsor's men--or women--settle for something less
than the automatic two-year exemption that comes with a Tour
victory. Three of Hoyt's picks didn't survive the 36-hole cut at
Scottsdale, the surprise being Casey, who struggled to rounds of
72-74. "I was trying too hard," the Englishman said. Carter, on
the other hand, made the cut by a stroke and then shot 69-70 on
the weekend to finish 42nd and earn $18,720. That gave him hope
that the next logoed envelope in his mailbox would bring good
news, although he didn't plan to write to any more tournament
directors. "If I'm in this position again next year," he said,
"it'll mean that I haven't made the most of the opportunities
they gave me. I won't bother them again."

The desert was even kinder to Barnes, although a loose tee shot
on the 72nd hole made him feel as if he'd sat on a cactus.
Needing only a par to tie for ninth and earn a pass into this
week's Pebble Beach Pro-Am (without costing him a sponsor's
exemption), Barnes pulled his drive into the water and made a
bogey. "I make a par, I don't have to sit on a plane for 17
hours," he said, bracing himself for a long flight to Melbourne,
Australia, and the Heineken Classic. While airborne, though,
Barnes would have time to reflect on the positives: his first big
paycheck ($78.115), the Sunday pairing with Sergio Garcia and
Vijay Singh, the girls who shrieked, "Ricky, you're so cute!" ...
and the warm send-off from a happy Hoyt.

Before he left, Barnes was asked where he would play next upon
his return. "Tucson," he said. "Sponsor's exemption."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL NO FREE LUNCH As a sponsor's exemption, Barnes, who finished 14th, came ready to (from left to right, opposite) schmooze host Eric Billings (the B in FBR), get a late first-round tee time and sign for every fan. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL LOCAL TIES Hoyt (top) tabbed Johansson partly because he played on Arizona State's 1990 NCAA championship team. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL 'CATS MEOW Later this month Barnes, an All-America at Arizona, will be exempted into the Chrysler Classic of Tucson.

"JIM'S NOT ONE OF THE YOUNG GUYS," Hoyt says of Carter, "but for
18 years he played every one of our Monday pro-ams."

At the Deere, Gossett says, "there were a lot of older pros

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)