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Sponsors exemptions a tricky balance

Besides playing golf for a living, Ricky Barnes and Seve Ballesteros have very little in common. But they both will play a role in the success of next month's Ford Championship at Doral -- while getting a free pass at a six-figure payday.

Barnes, 24, is a brash, blond bomber whose matinee-idol looks already has made him one of the PGA Tour's biggest heartthrobs. That's exactly why tournament director Tom Neville announced recently that Barnes had been given a sponsor's exemption into the March 4-7 event at the Doral Resort & Spa in Miami.

"I always like to bring the ladies to the golf course, and Ricky's the kind of guy to do that," Neville said.

Ballesteros, 46, is a Hall of Famer whose game has deteriorated -- he hasn't made a cut on the PGA Tour since 1996 in 15 tries -- but whose Spanish heritage is certain to attract a different set of fans to the Blue Monster. That's why he, too, got an exemption.

"We're trying to expand, and Seve can help us do that because of his Hispanic influence," Neville said.

At the Honda Classic, tournament director Cliff Danley said 61 players have written to ask for an exemption. Wait, make that 62. The agent for Justin Peters, winner of The Big Break on The Golf Channel, has just called, asking for one. Danley tells them to write a letter, knowing that only adds to the number of rejection notices he'll send out.

"Believe me, it's not an easy thing," Danley said.

Sorenstam draws ratings

The art of who receives a sponsor's exemption has become more scrutinized since The Bank of America invited Annika Sorenstam to Colonial last year, then the Sony Open in Hawaii gave one to local prodigy Michelle Wie last month. In both cases, the sponsors were rewarded with enormous television ratings and a spike in interest, which is kind of the whole idea behind sponsor's exemptions.

Many players believe the Tour is heading down a slippery slope by giving out eight sponsor's exemptions every week, half of which are unrestricted and can go to anyone with a scratch handicap. Two have to go to PGA Tour members and two go to players in the Nationwide Tour/Qualifying School category.

"There are a lot of players who think that sponsor's exemptions should be abolished," said Charles Howell III, who parlayed his free rides into earning his playing card in 2001 without another Q-School trip.

And it's not just because of the gender issue. Sponsor's exemptions have been around since 1969, when the PGA Tour broke away from the PGA of America. Over the years, some tournaments have tried to gain additional exposure by offering spots to NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, NBA tough guy Bill Laimbeer and Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, with so-so results.

The PGA Tour has become concerned enough about the process that its policy board quietly voted in November to lower the required handicap for the unrestricted spots from 2 to 0. While it may be fun for fans to watch Laimbeer chop it around for 36 holes, the two pros stuck playing with him those two days might feel differently.

"That was clearly done to make sure our tournaments focus on providing exemptions to players who can compete on the PGA Tour," Andy Pazder, the Tour's director of competition administration, said of lowering the handicap requirement.

Still, some players have complained that too often these exemptions go to the same people week in and week out -- people like Peter Jacobsen, Keith Clearwater, Mike Hulbert. But others say these players deserved the spots because their social skills made up for any lack of ability.

Ken Green thought his loyalty to certain events would earn him some free passes when he lost his exempt status in the late 1990s. He says he wrote 50 letters to tournament directors during a two-year span. He didn't exactly score well with his approval rating.

"Let's just say I didn't have a real high batting average," said Green, who hit .060 (3-of-50). "At the beginning, I was shocked because I thought I had been a loyal supporter and I was good in pro-ams. It got to the point where I'd see the letters come in and I didn't want to even bother opening them up."

Green, who is playing on a medical exemption this year, said his asking days are over. "My ego wouldn't allow me to," he said.

Politeness pays off

Olin Browne and Per-Ulrik Johansson have had no problems asking -- or receiving. Both also received exemptions at Doral, each for their third of the year.

Browne, who has won two PGA Tour events, is getting paid back for his good-guy reputation, his contacts as a member of the policy board and his support of tournaments during the years. Even though he lost his card last year by finishing 129th on the money list, Browne likely still will get into at least 25 events because of his conditional status and exemptions.

"Right after I came back from my illustrious showing at Q-School, I wrote letters to every tournament that I didn't think I would get in that I've usually played," Browne said. "I've always felt it was important you interacted with the tournament and the tournament director and played in the pro-ams. Hopefully, they take those kind of things into consideration."

They do. Without question, other tournament directors hear if a player who has been given an exemption has been rude or didn't socialize with the sponsors or amateurs.

At the Ford and Honda events, a tournament board makes the final call on the exemptions, with the directors making their recommendations. "Everyone has their opinion," Neville said, "but I'm the only one with the facts."

Danley and Neville share a similar philosophy with the four unrestricted spots: Think young and old.

"We want a couple to go to up-and-comers, and the other two to go to veterans who have supported the tournament," Danley said.

Tournament directors try to select a young, promising player the way an NFL team hopes to find a bargain player in the low rounds of a draft. Honda has helped launch the PGA Tour careers of Hal Sutton, Aaron Baddeley, Adam Scott and Ty Tryon. Similarly, Neville took pride last year in watching one of his exemptees, Hank Kuehne, lock up his Tour card a few months later. (Just two players -- Adam Scott and David Gossett -- have won via exemptions since 2001.)

The tournament directors are hoping that when a young player becomes a star, they'll want to repay that tournament by playing in it for years to come. But Green points out that doesn't always work.

"It's not like Tiger (Woods) has ever been back to Milwaukee or Quad Cities," said Green, referring to events who offered Woods exemptions when he joined the Tour in 1996.

Danley said the exemption process is getting more difficult every year because players are waiting longer and longer to commit. He says he'll probably hold at least one of them until the final week in case an attractive player wants to come at the last minute.

"It would be easier to give these out if you knew who was going to be in your field," Danley said. "What if Colin Montgomerie (who has played at Honda often) decides he wants to come, and we don't have a spot for him? This is not an easy process for anyone."

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