News & Opinion

What’s so special about exemptions into major events?

Rickie Fowler 2020
Rickie Fowler, who was given a special exemption into the recent PGA Championship, rewards the PGA of America with a top-10 finish.

Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson benefit by their appeal, but have special exemptions into majors gone too far? Hawk & Purk debate

Hawk & Purk Podcast Hero Article

Longtime golf journalists John Hawkins and Mike Purkey, who co-host the Hawk & Purk podcast on MorningRead.com, also discuss and debate the game’s hottest issues in this weekly commentary.

Given the inclusion of Rickie Fowler to the field at last week’s PGA Championship, those “special exemptions” doled out by three of the four majors don’t seem so special anymore. Do you advocate or oppose these free passes?

Hawk’s take: Club pros are fine at the PGA, the aging past champions always welcome at the Masters, so why not hold a parking spot for a player still driving a Cadillac? Because there are about two-dozen ways a tour pro can qualify on performance, which is the whole idea behind the majors in the first place, pun intended. Fowler played well at Kiawah Island, finishing T-8, his best showing on the PGA Tour in 31 starts, or almost 18 months ago.

Good for him, but he shouldn’t have been there. Fowler got in because he does television commercials for a mortgage company and a Mexican beer. He’s handsome, so the girls like him, which doesn’t hurt attendance or TV ratings. It certainly wasn’t by virtue of anything Li’l Rickie has done on the golf course lately. The decision to invite him was a patently silly one, a misappropriation of the original concept, made for all the wrong reasons.

Fowler might be hosting a game show in five years. Will he get another cheap invite then?

Tour pros should – and usually are – held to a higher standard than the rest of the game’s competitive universe. They can make millions of dollars every season without playing very well, and with each passing year, the tolerance for mediocrity has become greater and greater, pun intended there, too. Let’s save the special exemptions for special players. Rewards are for obedient dogs and frequent fliers, not struggling, high-end professionals.

Purk’s take: The USGA tends to offer special exemptions to the U.S. Open to players who have had long, accomplished careers. In 1990, Hale Irwin was 45 years old with two U.S. Open titles to his credit, but he hadn’t won on the PGA Tour since 1985 and appeared to be reaching the end of his career. So, the USGA offered him an exemption into the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah Country Club near Chicago. Irwin won one of the most famous Opens in history by beating Mike Donald in a 19-hole playoff. Properly inspired, Irwin won the Buick Classic the following week.

Some wanted to turn their noses up at the PGA Championship exemption offered by the PGA of America offered to Rickie Fowler, a fine player with a limited resume, having not won on Tour since 2019. However, he is one of the most popular players in golf, and the PGA surely thought that his inclusion would enhance the quality and visibility of the field. Fowler rewarded the PGA’s decision with a T-8 at Kiawah.

The USGA offered Phil Mickelson an exemption into next month’s Open at Torrey Pines in his hometown of San Diego. After originally saying he’d refuse, he did an about-face and accepted. Nine days later, he won the PGA and won’t need the exemption after all.

Point being, the potential for players with special exemptions to do special things makes the whole thing worth it.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.