What Hulbert means is that it wouldn't look good in the eyes of tournament directors. He is one of four players on the Tour Policy Board. He also has received two sponsor's exemptions this season, at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and at the Phoenix Open. "They say [Tour commissioner] Tim [Finchem] has influence," Hulbert says. "He doesn't. He can't tell them, 'This guy needs to get in.' But it helps me being on the board. I've met all these directors in the last two or three years. I've tried to help them out before I was in this situation. Nobody wants to be in this spot. I'm trying to dig my way out."
Players help tournament directors by showing up, being nice to the volunteers and happily playing in the pro-ams. Hulbert had always done all of those things at the Honda, which is why tournament director Cliff Danley held back his eighth and final sponsor's exemption until he learned that Hulbert didn't need it.
Danley already had given an exemption to Gamez, who played in three pro-ams last week, as he has done in the past. "He was here for us when he didn't have to be," said Danley. Referring to some of the other pros, Danley added, with a touch of cynicism, "When they're not exempt, they're always there for you."
Gamez has played 19 rounds this year and been under par in 17 of them. It is his best stretch since he slid a courtesy car into an oak tree at the 1998 Kemper Open. "I was driving too fast," he says. "I'm lucky to be alive." A side air bag saved him, although Gamez still bruised his liver and his spleen and suffered an injury to his back that limited his ability to practice hard until this year. "I realize that I was taking everything for granted out there," Gamez says. "I figured I would never be hurt bad enough to where I couldn't play. After [the accident] I said, 'I'm going to start doing things differently.' "
Playing a limited schedule, Gamez finished 208th on the '99 money list. His only exempt status this year is as a three-time winner on Tour, which, roughly speaking, ranks him just ahead of driving-range pros and concessionaires. Gamez finished 16th at the Hope after shooting a 41 on the back nine on Sunday. "Instead of trying to win," he says, "I was concentrating on the top 10."
A top 10 finish exempts a player into the next event. Last Saturday when Gamez found himself tied for fourth after three rounds, he vowed that he would play to win. He didn't, and he finished a stroke out of the top 10, but his final-round 70 left him fired up for his return to Bay Hill, where he has a 10-year exemption as a past champion (1990). "I'm so close to being able to win," Gamez says. "As long as I'm playing well, I hope the sponsors will continue to look at me."
After being shut out at Doral, Hulbert spent a week at home, in Orlando, which reinforced the lesson he had learned last season about the restorative power of not playing. "I was excited about coming down here," Hulbert said on Sunday evening, after the Honda had ended. "There aren't too many people who play 16 years and are excited about playing a practice round on a Monday morning at quarter to eight. I was."
Hulbert loved how he had gone three under on Sunday's final nine and had a 70-foot birdie putt on number 18 burn the edge of the cup. Hulbert collapsed on his back when the putt didn't fall. "It's a start," he said. "I know I can still play out here. I know I can still win out here."