Not every sponsor's exemption comes with writer's cramp. A young star like Casey, who has both international stature and extensive experience in the U.S., has tournament directors calling him. "I've already turned down two of them," he said over lunch last week at Scottsdale's Grayhawk Golf Club. Sitting across the table, former Georgia Tech standout Bryce Molder, who plays on the Nationwide tour, raised an eyebrow. "Next time somebody calls, would you give him my number?"
In some cases a sponsor's exemption conveys more than the promise of a week of golf—a fact that would be made clearer if the tournament director got down on one knee and popped open a little box holding a ring. The erstwhile Greater Hartford Open (now the Buick Championship) offers a spot every year to the American Junior Golf Association Player of the Year. What's more, because of its midsummer spot on the schedule, when college stars typically relinquish their amateur status, Hartford has facilitated the pro debuts of dozens of players. "We've definitely seen [those opportunities] repaid," says tournament director Dan Baker, citing return visits by Stewart Cink, David Duval and Justin Leonard.
Unfortunately there's no sponsor's exemption equivalent of a prenup. Woods made his pro debut at the '96 Greater Milwaukee Open but hasn't played there since. He figures even more prominently in the cautionary tale of Tiger and the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Earl Woods, Tiger's father, requested a sponsor's exemption at the Hope several times during his son's amateur career, but the desert pro-am took a pass. That history of youthful rejection, many believe, explains why Woods has never played in the Hope and why he reportedly didn't even reply to a letter of invitation to the 1997 tournament signed by Hope himself.
"It's really a can of worms for the tournament director," says Beard, who once served on the Tour's policy board. "You get 100 letters, 1,000 calls, there's politics, threats, extortion—and you've got 20 candidates who are all about the same." Charles Howell, who bypassed Q school by making more than $1.5 million with his sponsor's exemptions in 2001, says, "There are a lot of people out here who think that sponsor's exemptions should be abolished. This week, it's funny that sponsor's exemptions got in ahead of the Q school winner and the Number 1 player from the Nationwide tour." (That would be Mathias Gronberg and Zach Johnson, respectively, who were the FBR Open's seventh and third alternates.)
Gossett, who struck a blow for all sponsor's exemptions by winning at Deere Run. also recalls some grumbling. "There were a lot of older pros saying, 'They shouldn't be giving these spots to these kids.' But some of those guys had never won themselves."
Most weeks the sponsor's men—or women—settle for something less than the automatic two-year exemption that comes with a Tour victory. Three of Hoyt's picks didn't survive the 36-hole cut at Scottsdale, the surprise being Casey, who struggled to rounds of 72-74. "I was trying too hard," the Englishman said. Carter, on the other hand, made the cut by a stroke and then shot 69-70 on the weekend to finish 42nd and earn $18,720. That gave him hope that the next logoed envelope in his mailbox would bring good news, although he didn't plan to write to any more tournament directors. "If I'm in this position again next year," he said, "it'll mean that I haven't made the most of the opportunities they gave me. I won't bother them again."
The desert was even kinder to Barnes, although a loose tee shot on the 72nd hole made him feel as if he'd sat on a cactus. Needing only a par to tie for ninth and earn a pass into this week's Pebble Beach Pro-Am (without costing him a sponsor's exemption), Barnes pulled his drive into the water and made a bogey. "I make a par, I don't have to sit on a plane for 17 hours," he said, bracing himself for a long flight to Melbourne, Australia, and the Heineken Classic. While airborne, though, Barnes would have time to reflect on the positives: his first big paycheck ($78,115), the Sunday pairing with Serg�o Garc�a and Vijay Singh, the girls who shrieked, "Ricky, you're so cute!"...and the warm send-off from a happy Hoyt. Before he left, Barnes was asked where he would play next upon his return. " Tucson," he said. "Sponsor's exemption."