DUBLIN, Ohio – By almost any standard, Chris Wilson doesn’t belong in the Memorial Tournament.
He hasn’t earned his spot because he’s never played in a PGA Tour event – or any other international tour. Even on the starter-level Hooters Tour, he is ranked 97th in earnings with just $4,217 this year.
But Wilson is a native of the Columbus bedroom community of Dublin, home to Muirfield Village Golf Club, and that’s enough to move him to the head of the line for an unrestricted qualifying exemption into the elite 120-player grid that begins play on Thursday.
“Every year they like to try to get somebody with local ties, Ohio ties, Ohio State ties,” said Wilson, a former Ohio Amateur champion and Big Ten medalist while playing at Northwestern. “I had the nice local ties along with a decent golf resume.”
There are 19 eligibility criteria for a player to get in the field at the Memorial, including top money-winners, winners of the majors and other select tournaments the past five years, up to four of the top players on the European, Asian, Australasian, Southern Africa and Japanese tours, the U.S. college player of the year and winners of the U.S and British Amateur championships.
It’s a lot of dollar signs and numbers, trophies and tours. Then the exemption committee sits down and puts a face with the figures.
Early this year Wilson had written an emotional letter to Memorial Tournament founder and host Jack Nicklaus, telling about growing up not far from Muirfield Village, of skipping school to attend the tournament and of what it would mean for him to play in it.
The board that runs the Memorial, including Nicklaus (who also grew up in a Columbus suburb), can invite as many as 14 players who don’t qualify under any of the other criteria. Wilson received one of those invitations.
This year, the invitees vary from Wilson and South Africa’s James Kamte to accomplished professionals such as Rocco Mediate. Originally from Pittsburgh, he’s almost a local, too.
“I grew up three hours from here, so it’s kind of like being home,” Mediate said Tuesday.
Trying to salve the wounds of his so-called “locals,” he cracked, “Sorry about the Cleveland Browns and the Steelers for our entire existence. Sorry. Not my fault.”
Back in 2003, the Memorial Tournament offered an exemption to a kid from a few miles down the road who was struggling to make a living as a first-year pro. He had learned the game from his grandfather, who had built and owned a public golf course near the town of Ostrander. His parents still mowed the course and ran the snack bar.
That player was Ben Curtis. A few weeks after he missed the cut in the Memorial Tournament after rounds of 74 and 76, he shocked the golf world by winning the British Open at Royal St. George’s – in his first start ever in a major championship.
Curtis believes that the pressure of playing in front of family and friends at the Memorial six years ago steeled him for what he faced in coming from behind to win the claret jug.
“Any time you play in front of your hometown, it’s a little bit more than usual. It’s not just a normal event,” he said. “I tried not to look at it that way. I just tried to go out there and play. The first hole, I was a little bit nervous; after that I was OK.”
Over the years the Memorial has offered local exemptions to tour regulars John Cook and Ed Sneed, to a deaf Ohio State player (Kevin Hall) and to up-and-coming pros such as Frank Lickliter II and Joe Ogilvie.
The tournament considers an exemption to be a helping hand to a struggling player or an untested one, such as the 24-year-old Wilson.
“You can call it kind of the ultimate break,” Memorial Tournament director Dan Sullivan said. “We hope over the years that Chris Wilson gets some momentum off of this, and gets confidence and is able to build on it and is able to become a household name on the PGA Tour. We’re happy to give him that opportunity.”