It’s a little-known fact about PGA Tour tournament logistics: The field each week is 99% controlled by the Tour itself, with its various provisions for filling the roster. The remaining one percent — two exemptions — is controlled by the tournament itself. To players looking for status on the Tour, those two passes are golden, or at least brass, as they try with the exemption to grasp the brass ring and improve their standing in professional golf.
For most tournaments, those exemptions are awarded for one of two reasons. Either the player offers promotional value to the event, or the player has a unique fit for the tournament, and they are rewarded. Usually, given the long-shot nature of sponsor exemptions, getting them to the weekend is considered a success. Last week at the Quicken Loans National the two exemptions look to have been genius choices.
The first was somewhat obvious. Following his last week as the top-ranked amateur in the world, Jon Rahm turned professional and was seeded with an exemption into the field at Congressional. Rahm rewarded his benefactors with a first-round 64 to lead and remained in the title chase until late on Sunday, eventually tying for third at -13.
The second exemption, a good story rewarded with a chance, choice was far from obvious. It went to a journeyman ranked outside the top 600 in the world who had never won a PGA Tour event and had only eight career top 10s. But he lined up perfectly with the tournament’s U.S. military affiliation and, as a bonus, he was from the area, a local coming home to compete.
That local was a 34-year-old Naval Academy graduate and four-year PGA Tour competitor, Billy Hurley III. By now you know the story. The exemption turned his pass into a PGA Tour win.
How does this happen? How does the frog turn into a prince? Oddly it almost happened in consecutive weeks. For three days at the U.S. Open, Andrew Landry, ranked 624 in the world, had played his way into the final group on Sunday. In Landry’s case, that fourth round proved to be his witching hour, and his 78 restored his reality.
In Hurley’s case, he played against his profile. For both driving distance and greens in regulation, Hurley ranks outside the top 150. At Congressional he moved up more than 100 spots off the tee. The quantum leap in accuracy to the greens was even greater; he finished the week T16. That second move perhaps best explains the finish, because the former Navy lieutenant is the best on Tour with proximity to the hole. Simply put, when Billy gets it on the green, he hits it closer than everyone else.
On Tour this season, he ranks 133 in tee-to-green, but at Congressional he ranked 8th. In around-the green rankings, he is 107 for the year, at Quicken he was first.
The win sets in place a secure future for the next couple of years, with a Masters appearance on the list. The challenge for a guy who once steered ships successfully through the narrow straits of the Panama Canal is to navigate an equally narrow path to follow-up success on a much more turbulent PGA Tour.
While the Rahm and Hurley plot played out on Quicken’s final day, an equally intriguing couple of scenarios remained alive into the final nine. Two players, well removed from their novice days in professional golf, flirted with late-in-life wins.
Three-time major winner Vijay Singh, at age 53, turned back the clock in a bid to become the oldest player to ever win a PGA Tour event. Singh, who has refused to concede to age and has played mainly on the regular Tour (only eight Champions Tour starts in four years), shot 65 on Sunday to finish solo second. He is not the oldest runner-up in Tour history; that honor belongs to Tom Watson at 59 at the Open Championship at Turnberry.
At 46, South African Ernie Els was also looking for the fountain of youth, as he battles back from the yips attack on the first hole at the Masters. A double bogey at the 10th and two additional bogeys on the second nine on Sunday denied him a chance to challenge Hurley. He finished alone in fifth place at -12. It would have been Els’ 20th career PGA Tour win.
The notion that 50 is the new 30 in professional golf is not supported by the numbers, despite Singh and Els’ performances. In the last decade, only one player age 45-50 has won on Tour — Woody Austin at Sanderson Farms opposite the Open Championship in 2013. Davis Love III joined company with his future Ryder Cup team when he won at Wyndham last year at 52 years of age. Only two players in this century have demonstrated consistent winning talents at 45 and up — Singh with three wins at 45 in 2008 and Kenny Perry with the five wins after 45 in 2008-09.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.