News & Opinion

PGA Tour’s Napa event makes savvy pitch

Tiger Woods is not playing in this week’s season-opening PGA Tour event in Napa, Calif. Neither is Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy nor Justin Rose.

All of the big names, aside from Phil Mickelson, are catching their breath after the playoffs and Ryder Cup. That’s entirely understandable.

So is the Safeway Open’s response: giving a sponsor exemption to former major-league pitcher Mark Mulder.

Mulder will complete the 2018 triple play of crossover-athlete exemptions. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo played in the PGA Tour event in the Dominican Republic in March, and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry returned to the Web.com Tour event near Oakland in August.

Romo and Curry, both accomplished hobby golfers, didn’t exactly distinguish themselves competing against pros. Romo shot 77-82 and finished last in the field at Corales Golf Club. Curry posted 71-86 and finished last in the field at TPC Stonebrae.

But does this mean that including them was a terrible idea?

Not at all. That completely misses the point.

Curry, especially, strengthened golf by playing in the Ellie Mae Classic for the second consecutive year. He’s one of the most popular athletes on the planet – and he’s also utterly consumed by golf. So, it’s great for him to play in a tour event: He showed the world that this game is cool, too, and he brought uncommon attention to an under-the-radar tour.

Mulder, 41, doesn’t carry the star power of Curry, obviously, but he’s still a familiar figure in Northern California, given his five seasons (2000-04) pitching for the Oakland A’s. His participation this week at Silverado Resort (tee times) cannot hurt a tournament thirsting for a little love on October’s crowded sports calendar.

There’s a limit to athlete exemptions, absolutely – nobody wants to see Charles Barkley anywhere near a tour event – but Mulder counts as a reasonable choice.

“I don’t know if it would really get out of hand,” Mulder said of athletes from other sports landing sponsor exemptions. “I don’t think the major tours want someone to show up and shoot 110. Hopefully, I don’t do that.

“You need someone they know can handle the situation, and it ends up being a good thing as opposed to something that looks bad. I don’t think it’s something you’re going to see a lot.”

Tournament officials turned to Mulder – and fan favorite Fred Couples – because they’re in a tough spot on the schedule: immediately after the Ryder Cup in France. No players ranked in the top 20 are coming to Napa; Mickelson will be there mostly because his management company also runs this tournament.

Mickelson and nine-time PGA Tour winner Brandt Snedeker are the biggest names in the field, and Patrick Cantlay (at No. 22) is the highest-ranked player.

Also worth pointing out here: Mulder is a terrific golfer, probably the best pro athlete from another sport currently smacking around the little white ball. He’s better than Curry, who obviously knows what’s he’s doing with a 7-iron in his hands.

Mulder won the celebrity event near South Lake Tahoe, the American Century Championship, three consecutive years (2015-17). He finished second in July, behind Romo. Curry has posted two top-10s in Tahoe but hasn’t finished higher than fourth.

This won’t stop golf purists from complaining about Mulder “taking a pro’s spot” in the field. That’s short-sighted. Nearly all of the spots in the 144-man field were available for tour pros, and only one of the six unrestricted sponsor exemptions went to an athlete from another sport.

Golf is still a business, and Safeway, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based supermarket chain, paid hefty money (more than $6 million) to put its name on this event. Safeway earned the right to choose its sponsor exemptions. Mulder is a curiosity, a novelty. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick