Sponsor Exemptions in Golf: What They Are, How Tournaments Use Them

Michelle Wie in 2006
Before Michelle Wie joined the LPGA Tour, many of her tournament appearances came as the result of sponsor exemptions. Robert Laberge/Getty Images

"Sponsor exemptions" is a term applied to places in the field for a professional golf tournament that are set aside to be filled at the discretion of the tournament's sponsor. In other words, the tournament sponsor gets to say, "I want Player X, Player Y and Player Z in my tournament," and those players get in even though they have not otherwise met the qualifying criteria for the tournament.

Sponsors pay big money to get their company names in a tournament's title (e.g., the Honda Classic or the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship). Sponsor exemptions are one of the things the sponsor gets for spending that money.

Tournaments on the major pro golf tours fill their fields by some combination of qualification criteria, typically based on factors such as players' position on the money list, past champion status, career money earnings, and so on.

But a sponsor might want to get a golfer into the field who has failed to qualify through those criteria. Why? Any number of reasons:

  • Maybe the golfer is a resident of the city where the tournament is being played, and is therefore highly popular;
  • or the golfer is a top amateur playing for the local university;
  • or it's a former champion who remains popular with local crowds;
  • or it's someone who has a contract with the tournament sponsor;
  • or it's a onetime star who has fallen on hard times and lost his or her tour status, but is still capable of drawing crowds.

Whatever the reason, the sponsor wants Player X in the field, and sponsor exemptions give that sponsor the ability to add players to its tournament.

Is It Actually the Sponsor Making the Choices?

Say Toyota is a the title sponsor of an LPGA tournament—the LPGA Toyota Milwaukee Open, let's call it. Are Toyota executives really holding meetings to decide which golfers are going to get sponsor exemptions?

Possibly, but probably not. The tournament director is usually the one who makes the decisions on whom to use the sponsor exemptions. But those exemptions will go to golfers the tournament director feels most benefit the tournament (by generating fan interest and media coverage, for example), thereby benefiting the title sponsor.

Sponsor Exemptions Vary Between Tours

The guidelines for using sponsor exemptions—how many exemptions a tournament gets to dole out, what types of players are eligible to receive such an exemption, and so on—vary from pro tour to pro tour.

There is no guarantee that a tournament will give out any sponsor exemptions. But most pro tours do allow some sponsor exemptions in most tournaments.

Sponsor Exemptions Can Also Vary Within the Same Tour

Even within the same tour, the usage of sponsor exemptions can vary. Let's use the PGA Tour as an example. "Standard" PGA Tour events—those that aren't majors or WGC tournaments or FedEx playoffs—are allowed to give out eight sponsor exemptions. FedEx playoff tournaments give out none. The four majors each have their own rules for awarding exemptions, and the PGA Tour has no control over that (the majors are all run by other organizations).

Example: PGA Tour Sponsor Exemption Policies

Let's stick with the PGA Tour for examples of specific policies relating to sponsor exemptions. Consider a "standard," full-field PGA Tour event, say, the Honda Classic or the Texas Open. Here are the PGA Tour's guidelines for the use of sponsor exemptions by such events:

  • A tournament can award a maximum of eight sponsor exemptions (amateurs are eligible so long as said amateurs have handicaps of zero or less).
  • The tournament must look at the list of players who finished 2-25 on the previous year's Web.com Tour money list (combined regular season and finals). If any of those players are not already in the field, at least two sponsor exemptions must go to those players.
  • At least two sponsor exemptions must also be used on PGA Tour members who are not otherwise in the field.

As you can see, PGA Tour events do not have completely free rein in use of their exemptions. There are guidelines that have to be followed.

That's true of every tour. A "standard" LPGA Tour event, for example, can give out only two sponsor exemptions.

How Golfers Get Sponsor Exemptions

Tours usually put a limit on the number of sponsor exemptions golfers can accept in any given year, but again, this is something that varies by tour. On the PGA Tour, PGA Tour members can take an unlimited number of sponsor exemptions; non-PGA Tour members can take a maximum of seven.

Players who need sponsor exemptions typically write letters to tournament directors requesting them, and then hope for the best.

It's not uncommon to see sponsor exemptions referred to as sponsor invites, sponsor invitations or sponsor exceptions. The spelling of the term can vary slightly, too. Sometimes it's spelled "sponsor's exemption" or "sponsors exemption," where "sponsor" is rendered possessive or plural.