After finishing his final round last Sunday at the U.S. Open, Chip McDaniel hopped on a shuttle to San Francisco for a 9 p.m. red-eye flight to Boston. Once he arrived there around 5:30 a.m., the 23-year-old drove an hour and a half to Connecticut’s Ellington Ridge Country Club, right on time for the Monday qualifier for this week’s Travelers Championship.
Flying west to east is notoriously difficult, especially for someone trying to qualify for a PGA Tour event with a potential dream job on the line. McDaniel has no status on any tour and is striving to make it to golf’s major leagues via the most difficult route possible – Monday qualifying and then earning non-member FedEx Cup points. If he accumulates a total equal to or greater than what the No. 200 player in the FedEx Cup standings had last year, he is eligible for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals (Korn Ferry being the new sponsor of what long was known as the Web.com Tour). That’s where 25 PGA Tour cards will be earned later this year.
It’s a brutally difficult path, but McDaniel is making it work.
In March, McDaniel Monday-qualified for the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic and tied for fifth in the tournament. That left him close enough to the total he needs – 74 non-member FedEx Cup points – that he has decided to compete in Monday qualifiers for the rest of the season in hopes of equaling or surpassing that total.
He Monday-qualified for the Wells Fargo Championship but missed the cut. Not to be denied, he qualified for the U.S. Open and made the cut at Pebble Beach before settling for a 78th-place finish. That earned him only 2.49 FedEx Cup points, leaving him at 67.7 overall points. Making the cut in any PGA Tour event from now until the Wyndham Championship in early August would just about put him over the top.
All of that math brings us back to this past Monday when McDaniel shot 67 and then survived a 9-for-3 playoff to secure a spot in the Travelers Championship after his coast-to-coast odyssey. And McDaniel is prepared for more. He’s already entered into Monday qualifiers for the Rocket Mortgage Classic, 3M Open and John Deere Classic.
“I didn’t just come out of nowhere. I worked my butt off on all of my weaknesses as a golfer and a person. Just want a chance.” – Chip McDaniel
With the help of Twitter, McDaniel’s story has gone viral. There is a growing grassroots effort to attract him a coveted sponsor’s exemption into at least one of these tournaments so he can have a better chance to chase down his dream. He actually does have one – into next month’s Barbasol Championship in his home state of Kentucky – but any other guaranteed start would be a massive boost.
“I would be honored to represent any tournament as their sponsor exemption,” McDaniel tweeted. “People have no idea how hard the grind has been since November. I didn’t just come out of nowhere. I worked my butt off on all of my weaknesses as a golfer and a person. Just want a chance.”
On its own, McDaniel’s story is a testament to the lengths to which professional golfers will go for a fighting chance at greatness. Earlier this year, we wrote about the intense world of Monday qualifying, going into detail about how tough the process is for aspiring pros with little or no tour status.
The other side of Monday qualifying is the often controversial and misunderstood world of sponsor exemptions. They mostly come into the news when celebrities like Tony Romo, Steph Curry or Jake Owen are given free passes into tournaments to drum up fan interest. This growing trend isn’t necessarily bothersome because it’s a rare occurrence and everyone can recognize the economic realities. If adding one celebrity to the field means slightly higher attendance and TV ratings, it’s a perfectly acceptable investment.
What should come under scrutiny is how sponsor’s exemptions as a whole are awarded.
Oddly, there is little to no consistency to these exemptions. This year’s Valero Texas Open awarded three designated sponsor exemptions to PGA Tour non-members who were qualified for the Masters and within the top 100 of the world ranking; two exemptions to PGA Tour members not otherwise exempt; and three unrestricted exemptions. Some tournaments like the Sanderson Farms Championship have 12 exemptions with two restricted to PGA Tour members, two restricted to top finishers from the Korn Ferry Tour and eight unrestricted. Nearly every tournament has a different format, though most require at least two PGA Tour members to be selected.
Some will argue that because sponsors put the money up, they should be able to select whomever they want for the unrestricted category. Others will say that the whole point of having exemptions is for players like McDaniel, who are on the precipice of reaching the PGA Tour. That’s how players like Jordan Spieth and Joaquin Niemann achieved success.
If tournaments want to attract attention, they should be introducing the golf world to the next wave of talent. People will be tuning in to the Travelers Championship this week to see how newly minted pros Matthew Wolff, Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa and Justin Suh perform given their outstanding accomplishments as amateurs. Too often, however, we are left with sponsor’s exemptions like at the Charles Schwab Challenge where Mike Weir, Colt Knost, Kenny Perry, David Toms, Dru Love and Tucker Wadkins — the last two being selected because they are sons of past champions — were allowed to play. Inevitably, the alternates are players hovering around the magical No. 125 mark on the FedEx Cup standings.
Many players in that position went a nearly month between starts in May because the PGA Championship was followed by two limited-field, invitational events, the Charles Schwab Challenge and the Memorial Tournament. Sponsor exemptions should go to players who desperately need them. Golf is the ultimate meritocracy and there has to be a better system to reward players for performance.
Tournaments should give more thought to supporting players in (McDaniel’s) position or those attempting to break through. The Valspar Championship is a great model to follow.
At one point earlier this season, Corey Conners sat at No. 22 in the FedEx Cup points standings and still had to hop around to Monday qualifiers because he lacked status. (With a victory at the Valero Texas Open, for which he Monday-qualified, Conners earned a two-year exemption.) Like T.J. Vogel last year, McDaniel has been earning starts the hard way. These are the players who need the exemptions. When compared with Perry, a PGA Tour Champions regular who hasn’t made a PGA Tour cut in four years, it’s puzzling why the tour wouldn’t want to push to promote its younger talent.
Create a system to swap those who can no longer compete at the highest level with those who are tangibly proving they can. McDaniel is a young, exciting player with potential. Why not market him? Why not tell his story?
Tournaments should give more thought to supporting players in his position or those attempting to break through. The Valspar Championship is a great model to follow. In recent years, the tournament has given exemptions to up-and-coming players like Dylan Meyer and Lee McCoy, who drew plenty of attention.
The PGA Tour has lots of exemptions for older players. Paul Azinger, who is 59 and spends most of his time in the TV booth these days, was eligible to play in this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Memorial Tournament because he is a past champion of those tournaments. Prior to this year, the special exemption for those in the top 50 of the career money list was expanded to include those who have made 300 or more cuts in their PGA Tour careers.
This is where we pause to remind everyone that golf is the only sport where you can use accomplishments, potentially from many years ago, to secure playing status. That’s like a 50-year-old Sammy Sosa suiting up for the Chicago Cubs because he earned a career home run exemption. Something tells us the fans would rather see someone who can play the game at a high level now, in 2019.
That’s the direction the PGA Tour should be moving toward.
Give us more Chip McDaniels, the player with a life-changing opportunity on the line.
Chip McDaniel is close to earning enough non-member FedEx Cup points to qualify for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, where 25 PGA Tour cards will be earned later this year. Photo: Ezra Shaw, Getty Images
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