Rutledge Embraces Vagabond Life On Champions Tour

The hardest gig in golf must be for non-exempt Champions Tour players. It’s almost impossible even for them to know from one week to the next whether they’re in the next tournament. Jim Rutledge, the Victoria, B.C. golfer who was a PGA Tour rookie when he was 47, said in a recent interview, “If you can figure it out, you’re better than I am. It’s very difficult to explain and most of the time we’re wrong.”
Rutledge, 52, didn’t get into the Songdo IBD Championship presented by Korean Air that starts Sept. 16th at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club in Songdo, South Korea. The field has only 60 players as opposed to the usual field of 78 entrants.
Rutledge sounded almost amused at the complexity of eligibility criteria for Champions Tour events. He said he was out by five or six spots going into the Friday before last month’s Boeing Classic, the most recent Champions Tour event. Players must commit by 5 p.m. the Friday before tournament week. Then, Rutledge said, “I suddenly leapfrogged all the guys and got in.”
He learned that he was in five minutes before the deadline. Otherwise, he said he’d have gone straight to Monday qualifying. Rutledge has tried to Monday qualify eight times this year, and made it in that way four times. As on the PGA Tour, a golfer otherwise not exempt for the next tournament can qualify by finishing in the top 10 the previous week.
“You can’t get into a major by top-tenning, though,” Rutledge elaborated. “And you can’t top-10 out of a major into the next tournament.”
As for the South Korea tournament and the two Champions Tour events that follow it, Rutledge had calculated that he was out by five, 11 and seven spots. He has come to realize that his best route to exempt status on the Champions Tour is either by winning or finishing in at least the top 35 money-winners this year. He’s 46th at the moment, with $273,527.
But why would finishing 35th make a difference? Well, the top 30 players off this year’s money list, not otherwise exempt, to a floor of 50, will qualify for the 2012 season. That’s priority exemption category number one. The next category includes the top 30 money-winners off the all-time PGA Tour and Champions Tour’s money lists, to a floor of 70.
“Finishing in the top 35 would get me in,” Rutledge said, “because the first category never fills up. Jay Don Blake finished 34th last year and has gotten into a bunch of tournaments because of that.”
Blake has gotten into 15 tournaments this year, and is 23rd on the money list. Should Blake maintain his position, he will be fully exempt for next year’s Champions Tour. That, of course, is Rutledge’s goal. Then again, he wasn’t exempt for the PGA Tour until that rookie year when he was 47. Rutledge gained that status by finishing 14th on the 2006 Nationwide Tour, but he made only five of 23 cuts in his advanced-age rookie season.
Rutledge has long been one of Canada’s most interesting players. He has won six Canadian Tour events. He won the 2006 ING New Zealand PGA Championship on the Nationwide Tour. He tried PGA Tour qualifying school 16 times but didn’t get through once. His swing, which is all about smoothness, rhythm and balance – the same mantra his fellow Canadian Marlene Streit has invoked to win everything in women’s amateur golf, and to become the only Canadian in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Many PGA Tour players said for years Rutledge was the best player not to make it to the big show – and then, at 47, he did. He’s played 13 tournaments this year and has shot in the 60s in the final round 10 times, including a 65 at the Boeing Classic, where he finished T16.
Clearly, Rutledge can play. Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champion, was on the Canadian Tour with him before he reached the PGA Tour.
“I didn’t want to play a practice round with the guy because I thought I’d go into tournaments feeling like I was so bad, because he was so good,” Weir said. “He hit it so great and I’m hitting it all over the place and scrambling around, and Rut was just piping it right down the middle. I wanted to keep my confidence high, so I stayed away from him.”
Richard Zokol was 15 when he met his fellow British Columbian, who is a year younger. He wondered how he would beat him. Zokol did okay, going on to win twice on the PGA Tour.
That was a long time ago. Nearly 40 years later, Rutledge is still swinging smoothly, and trying to make his way on the Champions Tour. If he doesn’t understand the eligibility criteria, he also doesn’t complain.
“I knew there was no security going in,” he said.
That’s the way it is on the Champions Tour for so many players, and so Rutledge will just keep on keeping on. It’s his way, and has been for his entire pro career.

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