The USGA has tweaked the criteria for U.S. Open exemptions over the years without giving up two important objectives. It wants the most deserving players to be at the U.S. Open, and it wants to remain the most democratic of all majors.
The formula appears to be working.
At least half the 156-man field — usually a little more — has come through qualifying nine of the last 10 years. The exception was in 2006 when 80 players were exempt, and that was because of a few unusual circumstances. One of them was David Toms finishing bogey-bogey in 2005 to create an eight-way for 15th place. The top 15 and ties were exempt the following year, and 16 players got in through that category.
With two weeks remaining before sectional qualifying, the U.S. Open is headed toward another split — half the field will be exempt, the other half will have to qualify.
"Any time we consider an exemption change, that's the first thing we look at it," said Jeff Hall, the USGA's managing director of rules and competition. "We want to exempt those players deserving as such. But the democratic nature of the U.S. Open is very important to us."
Any proposed change goes through a series of models to make sure the majority of the field is exempt from qualifying.
Assuming that Tiger Woods does not play at Pinehurst No. 2 — he hasn't even been cleared to swing a club yet after March 31 back surgery — 49 players are exempt. There's a spot open for the BMW PGA Championship winner at Wentworth this week. And the top 60 in the world after each of the next two weeks will not have to qualify.
From the top 60 in this week's ranking, 25 players would be exempt.
The following week — after the Memorial — is the last cutoff, and it's loosely known as the "Justin Rose Rule." Rose won the Memorial in 2010 and moved to No. 33 in the world, one week after the ranking exemption was closed. In the three years since the extra week was added, no more than two players were added to the field.
"We'll take that risk," Hall said. "There's some duplication, generally, with the world ranking and the Tour Championship field. Those people tend to stay in the top 60."
Everyone on the bubble going into this pivotal week is playing either Colonial or Wentworth except for Richard Sterne (57), Charles Howell III (66) and J.B. Holmes (72). Howell tied for third at the Byron Nelson, but that was his fifth straight week. He is taking this week off.
The U.S. Open is June 12-15 at Pinehurst No. 2. The last time the Open was played at Pinehurst, the winner (Michael Campbell) came through sectional qualifying.
NEXT STOP: Now that Adam Scott has become No. 1 in the world for the first time, the next question is how long he can keep it.
Scott and Matt Kuchar (No. 4) are playing at Colonial. Henrik Stenson (No. 3) has his best chance at rising to No. 1 because he is playing in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, which effectively offers bonus points as Europe's flagship event. Stenson should be able to reach No. 1 if he places higher at Wentworth than Scott at Colonial. Kuchar would have to win Colonial.
With five players separated by an average of one point, golf could see its own version of musical chairs with the No. 1 ranking.
That wouldn't be the first time, of course.
The early summer of 1997 featured the most dynamic stretch in the 28-year history of the ranking when No. 1 changed five times in five weeks. Greg Norman was No. 1 until Tiger Woods replaced him. Woods lasted one week until Ernie Els won the Buick Classic and went to No. 1. Norman won the FedEx St. Judge Classic the following week to return to No. 1, and then Woods won the Western Open and reclaimed No. 1 for the next nine weeks.
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