The U.S. open is rightly called the most democratic of the majors because more than half of the 156-man field must qualify for it. For that reason special exemptions, unearned free passes, have always seemed out of place. This year the USGA gave six players, two more than ever before, such exemptions. I can see the merits of rewarding Pebble Beach icons Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson with a poignant send-off at their favorite course, but I don't think that the four others who received freebies—Aaron Baddeley, Michael Campbell, Greg Norman and Curtis Strange—are special enough to deserve them.
That may seem like a harsh thing to say about a teenage prodigy, an accomplished European tour player, a two-time British Open champ and a back-to-back U.S. Open winner, but none of these players meet the criteria for a special exemption that were established in 1966, to accommodate Ben Hogan. Back then the 53-year-old Hogan, a four-time U.S. Open winner, hadn't played in the championship in five years, but the event was to be held at Olympic, his favorite course, and the USGA thought his presence would make wonderful theater.
By making an exception for Hogan, and therefore breaking one of the guiding principles of the tournament—everyone is equal—the USGA set a precedent without well-defined guidelines. Who deserves a special exemption? Over the years they have been awarded unevenly. Stars like Billy Casper, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Sam Snead and Lee Trevino have been given them, as have lesser lights like Lou Graham, David Ishii, Gene Littler, Jay Sigel and Scott Verplank. This ad hoc system was even praised in 1990 when a 45-year-old Hale Irwin won the Open after receiving a special exemption. Since then Nicklaus has received eight exemptions, Watson three. Otherwise, with the exceptions of Ben Crenshaw and Palmer, who both got the wave at Oakmont in 1994, each recipient was a former Open champion returning to the site of his victory.
The process devolved this year. Strange is the closest call. Like Casper and Trevino, he won the Open twice, but Strange is not as important a figure as either of them. Plus, he has little history at Pebble Beach. Strange hasn't won on Tour since the '89 Open, and the exemption that victory carried ended last year. There would have been nothing untoward in requiring him to play his way in this year.
Norman's case is more clear-cut. Although, like Snead, he is a marquee name who has never won the Open, Norman is at least a rung below Slammin' Sammy in terms of career accomplishments. As a force in the majors for two decades Norman would have been missed at Pebble Beach, but his absence would have been a logical consequence of his decision to become an occasional player. As such he shouldn't be the beneficiary of a special exemption.
Nor should any 19-year-old. The USGA's decision to exempt Baddeley, an Australian amateur, was its worst mistake. Yes, Baddeley had an amazing victory over Norman and Colin Montgomerie at the '99 Australian Open, and the precocity of someone like Sergio Garc�a tempts us to think that other young players are fully formed when they are not. The USGA would have been doing Baddeley a favor by requiring that he go through qualifying rather than making what will always be a hard road seem easy.
In years past Campbell, of New Zealand, might have received an international player exemption, but the USGA has not utilized that category since 1997. Since then the USGA has used the World Ranking as a measuring stick for international players. That Campbell was not high enough on the ranking, despite four wins this year, to get into the Open is precisely why he should have had to qualify.
The USGA needn't abandon special exemptions, but should raise the bar high enough to eliminate any second-guessing over what has become the most subjective call in golf.