News & ToursMay 6, 2019

Debate: Have PGA Tour celebrity sponsor exemptions run their course?

Tony Romo tees off on the eighth hole during the first round of the 2019 Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship.
Marianna MasseyTony Romo tees off on the eighth hole during the first round of the 2019 Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship.

Tony Romo will again test his mettle against golf's best this week at the AT&T Byron Nelson, accepting a sponsor's exemption to his home course of Trinity Forest. This will be the third foray for the former quarterback on tour, and because of how he fared in the first two attempts, Romo's week—and to some extent, celebrity exemptions at large—are under the spotlight.

For a reminder, the 39-year-old has made his previous starts at the tour's alternate event Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, missing the cut by 16 shots last year and 17 strokes this season and beating just one player, George Riley, in those starts. Moreover, though Romo did reach the First Stage of Q-School, he's yet to advance out of U.S. Open sectional qualifying in multiple attempts, raising the question if his play merits tour inclusion.

But it's not just Romo who has drawn criticism. While celebrity invites to professional golf are not new, they are growing. In the past two seasons NBA MVP Steph Curry, LPGA star Brittany Lincicome, MLB Hall-of-Famer John Smoltz and country musician Jake Owen have accepted entries to top-tiered circuits, and though Curry and Lincicome held their own, Owen posted a pair of 86s at the Nashville Open, 17 strokes worse than the next closest competitor.

One of the intentions behind sponsor's exemptions, particularly at alternate events or the minor-league level, is to drum up interest for the tournament. Conversely, their overuse is in danger of becoming a circus act. Should the tour continue to use sponsor exemptions on celebrities, or have they run their course? Two of Golf Digest's own, assistant editor Chris Powers and staff writer Joel Beall, speak for each side of the debate.

Let 'Em Play

As a diehard New York Giants fan, you’d think I’d jump at an opportunity to drag Tony Romo’s name through the mud. But...I just can’t. I’ve actually grown to love the guy. He’s captured America’s attention with his color commentating, he’s a hell of a golfer, and to be quite honest, his Dallas Cowboys career is criminally underrated. That’s all beside the point though.

The debate here is about whether or not Romo’s—or Curry, Owen’s, etc.—sponsor’s exemptions have run their course. To that I say absolutely not. I will be watching Romo’s every move this week at the Byron Nelson, just like I did in his first two PGA Tour starts and just like I will when he attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open next week. How can you not? It’s obvious he has the game, and the more reps he gets, the better he’ll do. An ideal scenario at one of these events he gets exempt into would be Romo making the cut, and that will never happen if he doesn’t get more experience.

That’s not to say I’m lobbying for him to play every week, or Curry or Owen or whoever for that matter. These exemptions should be few and far between, but they are still a positive for the game. If even a handful of people say, “What’s Steph doing in that golf event?” when he plays in the Ellie Mae Classic, it’s worth it. When some of the pros who have actually earned their way into the event agree on that fact as well, it’s a slam dunk decision. There will be detractors, but if people weren’t complaining about something on social media, then something’s wrong.

One of these times, Curry or Romo are going to be right on the cut line on a Friday, which will undoubtedly bring extra eyeballs tuning in just to see if they make the weekend. You can’t say for an unknown tour pro struggling to make the cut late on a Friday. -- CP

Stop The Nonsense

Professional golf is the purest rendition of sports meritocracy. Though that philosophy is not found in every aspect of the game—a fourth of the Masters field doesn’t have a shot at the green jacket, and that tournament seems to be doing just fine—these exemptions are the antithesis of this aspiration and core belief.

The margins are so razor thing at the top level—Wells Fargo winner Max Homa almost failed to make the Web Tour Finals last year—that there’s no room for these vanity plays and sponsor favors. That a really, really good player will be watching from home this week while Romo misses the cut by 15 is a slap in the face to all that give a damn about the sport.

Also, stop trumpeting the extra attention these exemptions garner. Have some faith in the product that's already inside the ropes. Save for Curry's ventures at the Ellie Mae, these invites haven't correlated to extra TV viewership or bigger numbers at the gate. (Frankly, Curry could announce he was renewing his library card and the entire Bay Area would come to watch him fill out paperwork),

You don't see baseball teams inviting Brooks Koepka to pinch-hit, or NBA clubs bringing Dustin Johnson off the bench in garbage time. That would be a joke, which is what these exemptions have become. -- JB

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