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BUFF, BLOND Ricky Barnes was a hit at last week's FBR Open outside Phoenix. He clung to the leader board for four rounds, bashed drives of up to 350 yards and left women swooning in his wake. (" Ricky Barnes has plenty of admirers," clucked The Arizona Republic. "Some of them even like his game.") When a buxom young thing stopped him along the ropes last Friday and asked him to sign her form-fitting, pearl-white, Kenneth Cole shirt, Barnes hesitated. "Really?" he asked. "That's a pretty nice shirt." � "Who cares?" she squealed. "It's you!" � Credit tournament director Greg Hoyt for knowing what plays in Phoenix. Barnes, a pro for only six months, made the FBR field by way of a sponsor's exemption—a spot awarded to an otherwise nonexempt player at the discretion of the tournament director. "We tend to go with the young-gun type," says Hoyt, which pretty much describes Barnes, an amiable hunk who won the 2002 U.S. Amateur and made the cut in last year's Masters and U.S. Open.
That's the sunny side of sponsor's exemptions, which some players refer to derisively as "free lunch." To see the other side you only need to hang out with 42-year-old Jim Carter as he sorts the morning mail at his Scottsdale home. "You see the logo on the envelope and your heart doesn't know whether to jump or sink," he says. "It's like what happens when kids apply to college."
Carter, a 17-year Tour veteran, hasn't worried about logoed envelopes since he was a teenager receiving his acceptance letter from Arizona State. Last year, however, he finished 172nd on the money list and lost his Tour card. To crack a field now, he has to swallow his pride and approach tournament directors with hat in hand. "Nobody wants to be in this position," Carter said last week, savoring his first sponsor's invite, "but I guess it's my turn."
Some sponsor's exemptions get more attention than others. Recent recipients are LPGA superstar Annika Sorenstam and 14-year-old phenom Michelle Wie, but over the years tournament directors have rolled out the red carpet for high-profile amateurs such as NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Bench and NBA enforcer Bill Laimbeer. At the very minimum a celebrity entrant draws media coverage and gives a slight boost to ticket sales. Sorenstam and Wie provided an even bigger payoff—huge television ratings.
None of the five sponsor's exemptions at the FBR Open created that kind of buzz, but Hoyt got full value out of Barnes, who drew serious face time on ABC's weekend telecasts. Hoyt was on solid ground as well when he invited the young English star Paul Casey, a three-time winner on the European tour who is ranked 27th in the world.
Both players, it should be noted, had followings among the college crowd that floods the spectator mounds at the TPC of Scottsdale. ( Barnes was a two-time All-America at Arizona. Casey starred at Arizona State in nearby Tempe.) Local interest was also a factor in Hoyt's other three selections. Per-Ulrik Johansson, the Swedish star and two-time Ryder Cupper, played with Phil Mickelson on Arizona State's 1990 NCAA championship team. Ted Purdy, a Phoenix native and two-time All-America at Arizona, is still celebrated in cactus country for winning the 1996 Ping Arizona Intercollegiate by six strokes over a Stanford kid named Eldrick Woods. As for Carter, he won the 1983 NCAA as an Arizona State walk-on, took the Arizona Amateur and the Arizona Open twice each, and four years ago bagged his only Tour victory in—where else?—Tucson. "Jim's not one of the young guys," Hoyt explained, "but for 18 years he played every one of our Monday pro-ams. If I need a player for a radio interview, he's there. I wanted him in the field."
A player's social skills, you see, are almost as important as his playing ability in garnering an exemption. It is considered good form to swing by the sponsor's hospitality tent to shake corporate hands and pose for pictures. The pro is also expected to play in one or even two pro-ams. "You do anything you can to help the tournament director because he's helping you," says Barnes, who took time out on the Tuesday of FBR week to partner with a Special Olympics kid in a charity putting contest.
To do less is to jeopardize one's standing with other tournament directors, whose eyes narrow to slits when they read about players who take a sponsor's exemption and then refuse to schmooze, or skip the pro-am, or complain about the late starting times assigned to invitees, or abandon the courtesy car in the airport parking lot, or—worst sin of all—shoot a bad round and angrily withdraw from the tournament. "The most common abuse is to be arrogant," says retired pro Frank Beard, whose son Michael, a Nationwide tour rookie, got a sponsor's exemption at last month's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. "Their thinking is, I deserve this because I'm good. So I'm not going to the parties. I'm not doing a clinic."
Few players sink to that level of boorishness because they recognize the sponsor's exemption for what it is—a free ticket to a $5 million lottery in which more than half the entrants win cash. A gifted but unpolished golfer like Barnes, who failed last fall in the second stage of Q school, can play as many as seven events a year on a sponsor's exemption. If he gets hot, he can earn enough money to play on Tour the next year. That's the route Woods took in 1996, when he won the Las Vegas Invitational. (Woods, David Gossett, winner of the 2001 John Deere Classic, and Adam Scott, who took the 2003 Deutsche Bank Championship, are the only players to win on a sponsor's exemption since 1991, when Mickelson won the Northern Telecom Open as an amateur.)
The exemptions are even more precious if you're a Tour journeyman with school-age kids and a mortgage to pay. That's why Carter spent a week in December writing letters to more than 35 tournament directors. "I used to handwrite all my thank-you letters to pro-am partners, but this was the first time since college that I actually had to type something," says Carter, who parked his laptop on the dining-room table every morning and wrote in his pajamas and slippers. "I wrote something personal to each tournament director. I didn't simply write a form letter and send it to everybody." Carter wrote again after practicing in the morning, and he wrote yet again after dinner, trying to ignore the background clamor of his three preteen sons. "Toward the end my back would be aching and my hands, too. I now understand how people get carpal tunnel syndrome."