Often, the excitement in specific tour seasons revolves around returning champions, legends, and promising players. They are usually stated to be playing on a “golf sponsor exemption,” which might be confusing to viewers not familiar with the term.
What is a sponsor exemption in golf? A golf sponsor exemption is a special invitation from a tour event’s title sponsor to a non-qualifying player. The player who is invited by the sponsor is exempt from the specific qualifying criteria for the tour or the event.
In this article, you will learn more about sponsor exemptions in the PGA TOUR as well as in general golf tournaments and events. By the end of this post, you’ll know more about sponsor exemptions, their perceived fairness, and limits.
Let’s get started with the broad rules and familiarize ourselves with the golf language for beginners.
What Are The Rules For Golf Sponsor Exemption?
While specific rules for sponsor exemptions are different for different tours, there are two broad rules that all sponsor exemption guidelines include.
The sponsor must invite the player, and the invitation should meet the criteria set by the tour operator.
- The invitee must not meet the tour’s qualifying criteria – All qualifying players don’t need an exemption.
- The invitee must be invited by the sponsor – A non-qualifying golfer getting an exemption for any other reason would be considered a special exemption.
- The sponsor must adhere to the sponsor exemption regulations – This ensures that the invitees have a zero handicap or less and that some invitees are members of the organizing association.
Sponsor Exemption: A Case Study
John Deere, the sponsor of the John Deere Classic event, invited Jordan Spieth as its exemption in 2012. Spieth hadn’t qualified for the event on the PGA Tour criteria but managed to tee off because of John Deere’s invitation quota.
Why did John Deere invite Spieth?
Because the 18-year-old had shown a lot of promise and was an amateur superstar. His performance in the 2012 John Deere Classic, where he became a finalist, earned him another exemption for the 2013 Classic, where he won.
It might seem like John Deere can invite anyone who doesn’t qualify as its sponsor exemption. But at least on the PGA Tour, the sponsor cannot invite anyone who wouldn’t meet the PGA’s age restrictions. Similarly, John Deere may not invite a female golfer to play at a male golf event.
These restrictions are quite broad, giving the sponsor enough room to pick out anyone who can swing a club as its exempt invitee for an event. But to invite non-PGA members, the sponsor must invite two finalists from PGA’s developmental tour as well as two PGA TOUR members.
Why Are There Sponsor Exemptions In Golf?
Sponsor Exemptions exist to incentivize sponsors, and sponsors use them to build goodwill, drum up interest, and increase ticket sales. The higher the likelihood of these three interests overlapping with the invitation of a specific player, the higher the odds of that player being invited.
Let’s look more closely at the three reasons behind sponsors inviting non-qualifying players using their special invitation privileges:
- To build goodwill – When a sponsor invites a local favorite or a legend who couldn’t meet the qualifying criteria, it builds goodwill.
- To drum up interest – Inviting up-and-coming golfers and amateur heroes to a pro tour event can generate significant buzz for an event.
- To drive ticket sales – Some golfers have a solid fanbase but can have a rough year. When they fail to meet tour stop criteria, a sponsor’s exemption can bring them in any way for trilateral value.
Being invited by a sponsor to play at an event where one wouldn’t otherwise be able to tee off has some stigma. Some might even consider it unfair if a sponsor exemption won.
Has A Sponsor Exemption Ever Won?
Several Sponsor Exemptions have won the events they were invited to.
Jordan Spieth’s win in the 2013 John Deere Classic kicked off the then-college star’s professional career. Martin Trainer won a Korn Ferry tour event in 2018 on a sponsor exemption, as did Ben Silverman in 2023.
To an outsider, seeing a special exemption win over qualifying candidates can seem unfair. But because sponsor exemptions are usually promising players who don’t have as much professional experience as an average player teeing off at an event. This makes their victory much more acceptable to those who understand golf.
In the case of Jordan Spieth’s 2013 win, him being a 19-year-old competing with pro golfers with much more experience was impressive, to begin with. Spieth was invited to the 2012 classic as well, and he was an amateur at that point. When an amateur is invited to a pro event and outperforms the pros, you cannot help but be impressed.
All types of exemptions exist on different tours, and many golfers have lifetime exemptions for specific events. Because of the prevalence of special exemptions in golf, a sponsor exemption doesn’t stand out as odd. In fact, getting it is considered a feat in itself.
How to Get a Sponsor Exemption in Golf
To get a sponsor exemption, you have to be a huge draw, buzz creator, or promising player. Otherwise, a sponsor gets no value out of using a slot from its exemption quota to invite you. So, while a sponsor exemption might sound like a shortcut, it is not.
Still, players can improve their odds of getting exempt through a sponsor by understanding the criteria for sponsor exemptions for a particular tour or tour event.
PGA Tour Sponsorship Exemption Rules:
- Not less than two sponsor invitees shall be PGA TOUR members not otherwise exempt.
- Not less than two of the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour Finals Category, if not all, can otherwise be accommodated.
- PGA TOUR members may receive an unlimited number of sponsor invitations. Non-TOUR members may receive a maximum of seven (7) per year.
From these rules, one can see that being a tour member increases the odds of getting a special exemption.
Performing well on particular tour events can also help.
When a sponsor wants to invite even a single amateur or golf club member who doesn’t have a PGA membership, it has to invite at least 2 non-qualifying PGA TOUR members and often 2 non-qualifying finalists from the previous season as well.
Who Decides The Sponsor Exemption?
Usually, special exemptions are decided by the tour director, but the sponsor exemption is chosen by the sponsor’s partnership management committee, which includes golf experts and talent scouts.
In lower-stakes events, the title sponsor’s marketing director makes this decision.
As the age-old adage goes, follow the money. If you know which department’s budget the money is coming from, you’ll know who picks (or at least approves) the sponsor exemptions.
Often, the sponsor consults the tour director to get recommendations for its special invitations.
How Many Sponsor Exemptions Are Permitted In The PGA?
The PGA allows eight sponsor exemptions per title/main sponsor. As for individual golfers, non-members can get seven sponsor invitations throughout the year. PGA Tour members are allowed to accept unlimited sponsor invitations.
Of the eight sponsorship exemptions permitted by the PGA, four are genuinely free, while four have to meet specific criteria regarding membership and Korn Ferry Tour performance.
Can A LIV Golfer Get A Sponsor Exemption?
The PGA and LIV Golf don’t get along.
With the PGA suspending the PGA Tour memberships of everyone who went to tee off in the Saudi-backed competitor “golf league,” it wasn’t clear if their exemptions would be revoked as well.
But because LIV Golfers who had lifetime exemptions based on their previous performance got to retain those exemptions, it is clear that they can still qualify for exemptions. Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka, for instance, can play in The PGA Championship because of their exemptions due to previous wins.
If special exemptions are in play, then a LIV golfer can technically tee off on a special exemption as a golfer who doesn’t have a PGA TOUR membership.
Final Thoughts on Golf Sponsor Exemptions
A sponsor exemption is easier to understand if you see it as a “Sponsor Invitation.” It is called an exemption because it allows a golfer to tee off while being exempt from the qualifying criteria for a specific event.
Sponsors can invite amateur zero-handicappers, previous finalists, and in some cases, celebrities who haven’t ever played as pros in order to drum up interest in their event.