The special exemption is a coveted invitation for players looking to break through or get back on Tour. A phenom from Japan leads the race
Two weeks away from the Masters, always the most anticipated tournament of the year, a little-noticed race-within-the-race on the PGA Tour—the hunt for coveted special exemptions—has begun to take shape. (Tournament officials can invite, through sponsor's and foreign exemptions, anyone they choose. A PGA Tour member can accept an unlimited number of sponsor's exemptions, while a nonmember can take only seven a year. A foreign player can take seven exemptions, while a tournament can give two.) Going into the season, sponsor's exemption favorites were thought to be Billy Hurley, the U.S. Naval Academy grad; Erik Compton, the double-heart-transplant recipient; 2003 Masters champ Mike Weir; and Sam Saunders, Arnold Palmer's grandson. But the surprise leader, with four, is Ryo Ishikawa, the 20-year-old phenom from Japan. Ishikawa, who missed the cut at Innisbrook, was coming off a runner-up finish in the Puerto Rico Open, which was good for $378,000 and temporary PGA Tour membership. The second also pushed him to No. 1 in money won by pros playing on special exemptions. The Transitions used nine exemptions—including two to international players, Ishikawa and Peter Hanson of Sweden, who came in 55th. John Daly, who had been playing primarily overseas in 2012 and was making his first PGA Tour start of the year on a sponsor's exemption, finished 51st.