The gifted teen's spot in the PGA John Deere Classic evokes criticism but no apologies.
By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
Published May 26, 2005
When Kenny Perry won the 2003 Colonial, he joked that he would be simply a footnote in history, that it was Annika Sorenstam's week and that nobody would remember him.
Although Perry was exaggerating, there was some truth in his words.
Sorenstam and Colonial will be forever linked. It was the first time in 58 years that a woman played in a PGA Tour event. It put Vijay Singh on the hot seat after he made some controversial remarks about Sorenstam's participation. And it had many wondering if the novelty would turn into a trend.
Two years later, Michelle Wie has been the only female to play in a PGA Tour event since Sorenstam, twice at her hometown Sony Open in Hawaii. Both times she missed the cut. Nobody seemed to mind.
The same can't be said for this summer's John Deere Classic, which has given Wie an exemption in an attempt to generate publicity.
Australia's Mark Hensby, the defending champion of the tournament to be played in Silvis, Ill., recently slammed Wie's parents for allowing her to take part. He said she had not earned a spot and that the spot should go to a more deserving player.
"I don't think a 15-year-old girl who's done nothing at all should get a sponsor's invitation to a PGA Tour event," Hensby told reporters. "But I don't blame the John Deere Classic or Michelle. I blame her parents, and the people running her affairs.
"Michelle should be playing against girls her own age. She's obviously a very good player, but she's only ever won one junior tournament. If she qualified I wouldn't have a problem, but to take a sponsor's invitation, I don't think that's right."
Therein lies the argument.
What is a sponsor's exemption? Is it a device for tournaments to get otherwise deserving players a spot in the field? Or is it a way for them to cash in on their investment by inviting someone who might create interest, sell tickets, and attract television viewers?
In the case of the John Deere Classic, it is all about the latter. Tournament director Clair Peterson makes no apologies.
"It was absolutely the right thing for us to do," Peterson said in a telephone interview. "We historically have used one of our unrestricted sponsor exemptions to invite someone into our field that will increase the interest regionally. ... It adds excitement.
"In a situation like this, it's never going to be unanimous. Everybody has an opinion. I will say without naming names we did talk to players who did not think this was the right thing to do. But (PGA Tour player) Zack Johnson, a member of our board, got a very important vote. He encouraged us to do it. He was one of the 17 pros she beat two years ago in Hawaii.
"She is one of those talents who comes around once in a generation, maybe," he said of the 6-foot tall Wie. "Very compelling. People are curious. It's great for our event, and she really isn't taking a place that would have been used by another PGA Tour player. An unrestricted exemption allows us to invite anyone who meets certain skill criteria."
Peterson said his tournament receives eight sponsor exemptions, four that are restricted to PGA Tour members not exempt for the tournament. The other four are unrestricted. They could go to a club pro. They could go to Mark McGwire, who turned down the tournament's offer last year. Or to U.S. Amateur champion Ryan Moore. Or to someone like Wie.
"It's one spot out of 156 and it absolutely will fill the seats," Peterson said.
Many tournament directors have pointed out that sponsors who pay millions to have their name associated with an event - and thereby put money into the pockets of players - deserve a return on their investment.
"I understand. The tournament does have a responsibility to listen to their sponsor," said Gerald Goodman, tournament director of the local Chrysler Championship held at Innisbrook. "Maybe the decision (at John Deere) came down from there. And maybe the increase in revenue will increase the charity giving in that area.
"In our case, we have a field of 132 with only four sponsor exemptions. He has eight. We did discuss with our board and our sponsor that we feel being the final full-field tournament of the year, we owe it to the members to be good stewards in trying to help PGA Tour players that are close to keeping or losing their card."
In other words, Michelle Wie won't be getting an exemption here.
Peterson, however, has to look at things differently. His tournament is July 7-10. It follows the popular Western Open and precedes the British Open. It is easy for the top players to skip.
"It's a huge issue for us," Peterson said. "We have a hard time attracting the top five guys in the world. Many times the top 10 or the top 20 choose to go to the British Open early. Getting them here the week before is a huge hurdle for us. Out of a 156-player field last year, we had 12 who played and went over. One of them was Todd Hamilton who won (the British). We don't get the guys who would fill the seats otherwise."
Tiger Woods has not been to the John Deere Classic since 1996, when it was the Quad Cities Classic and offered him a sponsor's exemption as a rookie. Phil Mickelson has never played the tournament.