A Brief Look at the PGA Tour Exemption System

There are a variety of ways to acquire an exemption on Tour, but the bottom line is that you have to play well to get it at some point in your life. That time is now for many.

Thrash TalkAccording to the PGA Tour’s website, there are 33 ways in which a player may qualify for an exempt status. Now that the FedExCup has been decided, and the Fall Series is drawing to a close, the chief drama on Tour revolves around who will secure a spot among the exempt next year, mainly by virtue of appearing in the top 125 of the season money list.

Last week, at the Ginn sur Mer Classic in the developing region of Palm Coast, Florida, Ryan Palmer, who was previously on the “bubble,” (he was ranked 143 entering the week), secured himself a spot in the aforementioned 125 with a victory (and a two-year exemption, of course, for winning). Exempt status often seems to be a vague, mysterious, and perhaps sinister thing, even though the qualifications for such a status are laid out on the Tour’s website and the information is readily available to any seeker.

In order to save you the trouble of additional navigation deeper into the recesses of cyberspace, a variety of ways (and a few exemplary individuals satisfying the various requirements) will be looked at here, along with any potential “exempt status drama” brewing in the final relevant tournament of the year (officially referred to as an “event cosponsored by the PGA Tour”).

The Big Tournaments
Contrary to a certain opinion, Tiger Woods is not permitted to play on the PGA Tour just because he’s a very good golfer, people generally like him, and he makes the Tour a great deal of money. Under the current system, Woods would be exempt for a variety of reasons, but officially, he received an exemption for the 2008 season because of his status as “Winner of a PGA Championship or U.S. Open prior to 1970 or in the last 10 calendar years.”

As the web site points out, “each PGA Tour player has earned a position on the priority ranking system that will be used to select tournament fields.” Of the 33 qualifications for exempt status, “Winner of a PGA Championship…” is given top priority. This is also a five-year exemption, which is the longest given by the PGA. It’s interesting that top priority is placed upon winning the PGA’s Major, but when this is considered in light of the fact that the other majors hand out exempt status to their own tournament, and indeed to other majors, it seems to be a logical choice for top priority in the PGA’s system.

Following this, winners of the Players Championship, The Masters, and the British Open during the past ten years are granted an exemption. Members of this five-year exempt status entering the current year include Davis Love III, Zach Johnson and Ben Curtis. The next tier below this are winners of the Tour Championship, or any World Golf Championship event since 2005. The latter is the reason for David Toms’ exempt status entering this year.

It’s certainly not particle physics, but it’s easy to see why players generally designate between the Majors, the second level events (Players, Tour, WGC) and the remaining events of significance. It makes sense that a golfer is compensated more fully in the system for a victory in one of the more difficult tournaments, thus giving the golfer a better chance for further self-preservation by guaranteeing him tournament appearances for a longer period of time. As an example, Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton, respectively, are neither the highest earning nor the winningest golfers on Tour, but the magnitude of their wins has ensured them an exempt status for a period of ten years. However, it could be asked whether or not the PGA Championship is five times more difficult than the average event on Tour, which is what the decision to allow exemption for a period of 10 years versus only two seems to be suggesting.

The Regular Tour Events
A bit further down the list of possibilities for exemption come winners in Tour-approved events within the past two years. Fred Couples may have earned the gross domestic product of several small countries in the Skins Game, but it doesn’t contribute to his exempt status for the 2008 season. Interestingly, he is insured this as a player “among the Top 25 in career earnings as of the end of the preceding calendar year” who “elect[s] to use this special exemption for a second year, provided that the player remains among the Top 25 on the career money list.” J.B. Holmes, Rory Sabbatini, Jonathan Byrd, and Charles Howell III all are exempt because of a victory during the previous two seasons.

Other Means of Exempt Status
After a number of other less than common classifications, such as “Two international players designated by the Commissioner,” comes a rather interesting category: “Life Members (who have been active members of the PGA TOUR for 15 years and have won at least 20 co-sponsored events),” in other words, golfers who were formerly winning a number of tournaments but are now, essentially, past their prime. Tom Watson, a fan favorite and arguably one of the 15 greatest golfers of all time, is the only member of this category. Watson, of course, spends the majority of his time playing on the Champions Tour, where he is anything but past his prime, having won twice this year.

Next, the contentious and highly visible “Top 125 on previous year’s Official Money List.” Jose M. Olazabal, Tommy Armour III, and Shigeki Maruyama are exempt coming into this year for this reason. The chief drama surrounding a potential leap into the top 125 this week ought to be provided by Jeff Overton. Overton, who underwent an emergency appendectomy only weeks ago and is wearing a naproxen patch because of the immensity of the pain he is enduring, is teeing it up this week in hopes of maintaining — if not bettering — his 125th place status. We’ll return to a glance at players “on the bubble” this week, but the rest of the list awaits.

A few categories past medical exemptions – which allowed David Duval to play this year – comes another visible battle for inclusion in an exempt group. Membership in the category “Top 25 and Ties from the previous year’s PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament… and players 2-25 on the 2007 Nationwide Tour money list” allowed Chez Reavie and Kevin Streelman to compete on Tour this year. Reavie did not earn an exemption for 2009 with his victory at the RBC Canadian Open, however, as this is not a Tour cosponsored event. Following this are a number of “special” classes, including past tournament winners and “Veteran Members who have made a minimum of 150 cuts.”

Returning to players around the “125” number, a few names stand out. David Toms is perhaps the most notable. However, there’s no need to panic, golf fans. Toms is exempt through 2001 because of his status as a winner on Tour in the previous few years, even though he will no longer be exempt as a result of his 2005 victory at the Accenture Match Play Championship. Davis Love III, at 118, has recently increased the value of his stock with good play. Should he finish in the top 125, he won’t be forced to use an exemption based upon his place in the career money list. This may be a mere technicality, but the perception that he earned his exemption based upon good play recently, rather than past success, is surely worth something to the man and keeps him free (at least temporarily) of the “has-been” label.

Jason Gore is presently situated at number 136 on the money list. Having played well in previous years, Gore was comfortably situated in the top 125 on the list last year. He’s been invisible in 2008, save for a few weeks. Unless he rights the ship in Orlando this week, the man will be in trouble. Perched at number 131, Bob Tway also finds himself in an uncomfortable position entering the week. Regardless of these two individuals, the standout story is Overton, who has defied doctor’s orders in an attempt to keep his card.

There are a variety of ways to acquire an exemption on Tour, but the bottom line is if you haven’t won recently, haven’t played well in the present year, or don’t have a legacy of great play to fall back upon, you might find yourself in a very undesirable spot entering a tournament, as a few players do this week at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic. Of course, a miracle victory by someone well outside the top 125 is always a possibility, and an assurance of exemption for the upcoming year.

14 thoughts on “A Brief Look at the PGA Tour Exemption System”

  1. Ben,

    I’m guessing that if you add up all those who are exempt under the 33 criteria, you’d have more than can fit into a PGA Tour event field.

    Can you do a follow up on how a player gets into a PGA Tour event based on how he got his exemption?

    How many 2009 PGA Tour event starts would the guy who came 25th at Q School or 25th on the Nationwide Tour expect to get with their exemptions earnt in 2008?


  2. Further to Mark’s question, can you explain what each exemption entitles a player to do? In other words, I thought some of the exemptions do not necessarily entitle a player to enter any tournament he wants (not talking about special invites like Masters, etc.) on the tour, but others do, and that some exemptions are limited as to number of tournaments. Also, how is the pecking order established?

    I have never understood how all this is done.

  3. Guys,

    Thanks for the comments. I would be more than happy to do a follow up on the subject and answer the questions you have posed. If anyone else has further inquiries, please post them here and I’ll try to include a response to all of them in a follow up article in a few weeks.

    Thanks again,


  4. I get the top 125 money list and the exeptions it provides a given player for the following year. What I do not get is when the commentator says it is important because the top 125 players can set their schedule for next year.

    Another question I have is the same as TRAV’s, how are the pairings determined at each tournatment? Bill Haas never seems to play with Vijay, Tiger or Phil. If the threesomes were selected at random you would think he would end up playing with someone in the top 25 once in a while.

    Finally, how are the tee times determined for the first two rounds?

  5. “Reavie did not earn an exemption for 2009 with his victory at the RBC Canadian Open, however, as this is not a Tour cosponsored event.”

    Yes it is, and yes he did earn a two year exmemption. I was at his winning press conference when he was asked about it.

  6. hi just wondering when a player is lucky enough to win more than once in a season, how does the exemption work for each event, do they run concurrently or one after another


  7. same question as colm. if a player wins more than once in the same year how does the exemption work.do they run concurrently or consecutive.

    also how do you earn a lifetime exemption?


  8. Davis Love III scored his 20th PGA Tour victory last November. Why was he not in the field of this years Masters?

  9. Davis Love III scored his 20th PGA Tour victory last November. Why was he not in the field of this years Masters?

    Because he won a Fall Series event after the Tour Championship. They don’t count for the Masters the same way a “regular season” win does.

  10. Hope to answer some of these:

    1. You get up to five additional years for multiple wins (ie if you win three times you get a 5 year exemption)
    2. The top 50 golfers ranked in the world that play in each non invitationals get the preferred times and the rest are picked at random.
    3. Jay Williamson (25th Q) got into 19 events as of 10/4 and Ricky Barnes (25th NW) got into 20 events.
    4. Each non invite tournament is has 132 or 144 players. They are ranked by each of the 33 categories. In order for a PGA player to keep his card he must play in at least 15 events per year. The top 100 players average about 20. So the tournaments get probably 90-100 of the 1-19 exempt status players enter each week. That is done on the Friday before the tournament. Then there is a stand by list where you are ranked by priority. Each week, there is always a couple of people that commit drop out.


  11. If a PGA player missed the 125 players for the year, however qualified and made it to play in a tournament.. What is his status for that year if he wins a tournament,

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