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Golf Notes April 23

This is one time when past champions of a major are thrilled to get a letter.

The U.S. Golf Association awarded special exemptions to Tom Watson, Hale Irwin and Tom Kite to play in the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields.

That means there will be three fewer spots available to qualifiers, although USGA executive director David Fay pointed out Tuesday that the U.S. Open still has more open spots than any other major.

Why those three? The seven-member championship committee concluded that three guys who play almost exclusively on the 50-and-older Champions Tour can still be competitive.

"It's one of those terrific barroom debates," Fay said. "Why have any [exemptions]? Should you have none at all? Should all 156 players, including the defending champion, have to tee it up and qualify? If you dismiss that, then you start chipping away at all the categories, which are pretty comprehensive.

"Are you risking the openness of an Open by having a few special exemptions? In this case, you're not."

Watson, who won in 1982 at Pebble Beach with his famous chip-in for birdie on the 17th, will be playing in his 30th U.S. Open.

While Olympia Fields hasn't hosted a major since Jerry Barber won the 1961 PGA Championship, Watson still has a connection to the Chicago-area course. He played his first PGA Tour event at Olympia Fields, making the cut as an amateur in the 1968 Western Open.

This will be his fourth special exemption to the U.S. Open, trailing only Jack Nicklaus (eight) and Arnold Palmer (five).

Three-time winner Irwin received an exemption for the third time. He missed the cut last year at Bethpage Black (82-81), but in 1990 he became the only player to win the U.S. Open after getting a free pass from the USGA.

Kite got his first special exemption. His 10-year pass from winning the '92 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach ended with the 2001 Open at Southern Hills. He tied for fifth that year to qualify for Bethpage.

Unlike the other majors, U.S. Open champions are only exempt for 10 years. British Open winners can play until they're 65, while the PGA Championship and Masters offer lifetime exemptions.

Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson tried to take that away by sending an infamous letter last year to three past champions. The tournament's lifetime exemption policy later was reinstated.

That's entertainment

Grammy Award-winning singer Vince Gill is this year's winner of the Distinguished Service Award from the PGA of America.

Gill founded the Vinny Pro-Celebrity Golf Invitational in 1993, which has generated nearly $3 million for junior golf in Tennessee. His support of the Tennessee Golf Foundation has led to 1,300 juniors playing in 160 events on the Vince Gill Tennessee PGA Junior Tour.

The PGA Distinguished Service Award is for those who show leadership and humanitarian qualities, along with enthusiasm for golf. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was honored last year. Gill becomes the second entertainer to win the award, joining Bob Hope.

"I don't see myself as an ambassador for the game of golf," Gill said. "I'm someone who loves it."

Gill has won a record 15 Grammys and 18 Country Music Association awards. He plays off a 1 handicap and once shot a 62 in a member-guest tournament.

He will be honored Aug. 13 at The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., the night before the PGA Championship at Oak Hill.

Mickelson connection

Scott Peterson, charged with murder in the deaths of his wife Laci and their unborn son, has a loose link to Phil Mickelson. They were high school teammates in San Diego.

According to Golf World magazine, Mickelson was a junior at University of San Diego High School in 1987 when he had to choose between playing in a U.S. Open local qualifier or the California Interscholastic Federation-San Diego Section team championship.

Lefty's teammates decided the U.S. Open qualifier was a better career move. He was replaced in the team championship by Peterson, a freshman.

Mickelson said through a spokesman he does not remember much about Peterson.

Peterson became the star of the University High golf team for two years after Mickelson graduated. As a senior, he tied for seventh in the CIF Individual Championship, six strokes behind winner Chris Riley.


Nine of the top 10 players in driving distance are playing in the Houston Open this week at Redstone Golf Club, which at 7,508 yards is the second-longest course on the PGA Tour at sea level. ... Four of the top seven players on the PGA Tour money list -- Davis Love III, Mike Weir, Jay Haas and Chad Campbell -- already have set personal records for most money won in a season.

Stat of the week

Davis Love III is leading the PGA Tour money list for the first time since the 1992 Buick Classic.

Final word

"I'm not sure if it's exactly gambling, but I played some of the slot machines." -- Se Ri Pak, asked if she had gambled during the LPGA Takefugi Classic in Las Vegas.


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