What’s wrong with this picture? Justin Rose won the Memorial Tournament to rise to 33rd in the world ranking. As a result, Simon Khan got into the U.S. Open…but Rose didn’t.
It came about because the USGA holds a spot in the Open for the Memorial winner if it’s his second PGA Tour title in the last 12 months and he isn’t already exempt. Since that wasn’t the case, the USGA awarded the spot to the first alternate in the European sectional qualifier that had already been held. That happened to be Khan. On the plus side, Khan recently won the European PGA Championship. On the other hand, he had to go back to Q School to regain his European Tour exemption this year, and is 107th in the world ranking.
The St. Jude Classic brought better news. Since Lee Westwood did not become a multiple PGA Tour winner and was already in the Open field anyway, the held spot went to the first alternate from Columbus. That happened to be Rocco Mediate, and after his memorable playoff against Tiger Woods two years ago it’s nice to have Rocco in the Open.
As for Rose, he failed in sectional qualifying held in Columbus the day after the Memorial. Also missing out there was Rickie Fowler, who finished second to Rose at the Memorial and is ranked 32nd in the world. It can’t be said that they didn’t have a chance to make the Open, but it’s a shame they won’t be at Pebble Beach.
The top 50 in the world ranking are exempt into the U.S. Open, but there’s a catch. The cut-off date was May 23, in order to give the USGA time to set up its sectional qualifying. So the absences of Rose and Fowler are a bit of a fluke—but a fluke the USGA should be concerned with.
Here’s a possible solution—keep three slots open for players who move into the top 40 in the world ranking after the cut-off date. Making it the top 40 instead of the top 50 means you’re not letting in players who were merely jostling for position around the cut-off date, only those who have made a big jump. If less than three qualify that way, alternates from sectional qualifying would fill the field. An alternate solution would be to keep holding spots for the winners of the events after the cut-off date, but exempt them into the Open field if they moved into the top 50.
That wouldn’t have helped Fowler, who, strangely enough, actually did go to Pebble Beach—but only to caddie in the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge the week before the Open. He also get in a round himself while he was there. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to see what this 21-year-old could have done in the Open?
The problem in Fowler’s case is that it’s really hard for a rookie to get an exemption. Most of the exemptions are based on performance in the previous year (i.e., position on the 2009 money list) or even earlier (i.e., winners of major championships in the last five years). A rookie can earn an exemption only by making the top 10 on the money list or top 50 on the world ranking by the May cut-off. The top 10 is a high bar, and the world ranking is determined by points over a two-year period so making the top 50 based on a half-year is no mean feat, either.
Given those constraints, I think the USGA would be justified in giving a special exemption to a rookie who has played as well as Fowler has so far. Though I think I know what the USGA’s response would be: Play well in sectional qualifying, kid.