Singh gets a deserved break

I was a bit surprised that the USGA gave Vijay Singh a special exemption into the U.S. Open, but only because they are usually stingy with them.

In fact, they’ve been really stingy in recent years. From 2006 to 2009 there was not a single special exemption handed out. This April, they gave one to Tom Watson, but only after some deliberation. You would think that his near-winning performance in last year’s British Open combined with his history at this year’s U.S. Open site, Pebble Beach (site of his 1982 triumph), would have made an exemption a no-brainer. But the USGA didn’t give him one coming out of their annual meeting in February, instead waiting until he played well in this year’s Masters to finally make the move.

Singh fell out of the top 50 in the world ranking just a week before the cut-off for the top 50 earning spots in the U.S. Open. It appeared that he would have to go through sectional qualifying in order to keep alive his streak of playing in 63 straight majors (the longest current such streak), but said he wasn’t even sure if he was going to attempt the 36-hole grind next Monday.

This week, the USGA unexpectedly gave Singh a reprieve. I agree with the decision. The 47-year-old is not that far removed from being one of the very best players in the world. (In fact, he might be the most unappreciated great player of all time, as I’ll address in a post somewhere down the line.) While the USGA is not accustomed to giving exemptions to players who barely miss the top 50 in the world ranking, the fact that an injury was a major factor in Singh’s drop this year—and that he now appears to be recovered—was cited in the announcement.

While exemptions have most often been given for more sentimental reasons, such as a player having won at a given site in the past, or to an aging superstar like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, or Watson who people still want to see, there was some precedent for someone in Singh’s situation. In fact, the last special exemption recipient before this year, Nick Price in 2005, had a similar case.

Another example was 45-year-old Hale Irwin in 1990 at Medinah—the only player to receive a special exemption and go on and win. Mike Donald, U.S. Open champion? Hard to believe, but that’s what we’d be calling him if Irwin hadn’t been invited.

A total of 49 special exemptions have been given, with the only recipients to finish in the top 10 being Irwin, Watson (T5, 1993), Nick Faldo (T5, 2002), Lee Trevino (T9, 1984), and Price (T9, 2005).

The first special exemption was given out in 1966 to Ben Hogan at Olympic (he finished 12th at age 53). No more were awarded until 1977 (to veterans Sam Snead, Tommy Bolt, and Julius Boros), after which it became more commonplace.

Arnold Palmer received five exemptions, including a farewell appearance at Oakmont in 1994. Jack Nicklaus surpassed that with seven, including a Pebble Beach swan song in 2000. Watson now matches Palmer with five.

Only twice has the USGA given more than three exemptions in a year, but they went crazy those two times: five in 1994 at Oakmont (Palmer, Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson, Ben Crenshaw, Seve Ballesteros) and six in 2000 at Pebble Beach (Aaron Baddeley, Michael Campbell, Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Curtis Strange, and Watson).

If you’re wondering about Baddeley, he had just won the Australian Open as an 18-year-old amateur. The only other amateur to get a special exemption was Jay Sigel in 1980. The oddest name on the list? David Ishii in 1988. That was for his play on the Japan Tour. At the time, the USGA was giving out international exemptions, but since Ishii is American he didn’t qualify for one of those.

As for Singh in 2010, I don’t expect him to pull an Irwin, nor will he be a gallery attraction. Still, he’s a worthy addition to the U.S. Open field.

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