It’s open season on convoluted exemptions

Have a hankering to play St. Andrews? Better still, have a hankering to play St. Andrews during a British Open?

Well, you might just be in luck. Check category No. 165. You might already be qualified. That would be for low Hungarian not otherwise exempt at the Fred Meyer Challenge.

What’s that? The Fred Meyer Challenge is no more? OK, skip that category and go to No. 183: Highest finisher among former Division III collegiate standouts not otherwise exempt at the CVS Charity Classic.

Or Category 218: Highest rated player not otherwise qualified in the Kodak Challenge.

If you’re shaking your head and thinking these examples are silly, well, they are. But they’re not much sillier than the ones R&A officials have come up with to make sure that it’s anything but the “Open” Championship.

For the record, a whopping 31 categories are in place to assure that the delectable flavor of British Open qualifying never returns to the links landscape. Oh, sure, qualifying was good enough for generations of distinguished golfers, but today’s R&A leaders thinks it’s much better to have the top five finishers in what amounts to a club championship in Malaysia earn their way into the British Open while no one is watching.

That is why with 51 days to go before the Open Championship commences at St. Andrews, a staggering 99 golfers already are exempt.

Or, if you prefer the glass half empty, that means there are only 57 spots available – although a serious disclaimer is attached. That’s because depending on how things go in the coming weeks, some of those “open” spots could be snatched away by those fortunate enough to hit the jackpot in some of those categories that still are offering exempt spots.

Which category? It’s so hard to filter through and pick out a favorite. Nos. 11 (European PGA Tour) and 19 (American PGA Tour) tickle my fancy, however, for they award spots to players who do well in two tournaments leading up to the British Open.

In Europe, the highest finisher within the top five who isn’t already qualified will earn spots at both the Alstom French Open and Barclays Scottish Open. Ditto in America at the AT&T National and the John Deere Classic.

And if it’s a tie? Come on, they’ve thought this foolishness out down to the tie-breakers. First, they will match final-round scores. If still tied, hole-by-hole from the 18th hole will be the determining factor. If still deadlocked, perhaps closest to the hole on the second par-3 will do the trick.

Yes, crazy things happen and it could still be tied, so the next tie-breaker would be a chip-off at the 18th green – or beer pong, depending on what the players can agree to.

There also is a category that awards spots to the top two players not otherwise exempt on a money list for six tournaments – The Players Championship, Memorial, St. Jude Classic, U.S. Open, Travelers and AT&T National.

That, folks, is the definition of contrived. So is category No. 20: Playing members of the 2009 Presidents Cup. That’s right, Vijay Singh can’t make a cut, but he gets into the field at St. Andrews because he played in the Presidents Cup nine months ago. (No doubt the big Fijian will sent thank-you notes to Tim Finchem, George Bush and Bill Clinton, eh?)

Good gracious, the R&A chaps can come up with some beauties to make things easier for guys. What’s next, exemptions for those who take part in the Vivendi Trophy?

Heck, why not spots for the top two hyphenated names in the Race to Dubai? (Time to make a charge, Jean-Baptiste Gonnet – and you, too, Rafael Cabrera-Bello.)

We’re not big on hyphenated names in the States, so perhaps the top two players on the FedEx Cup standings who use initials should earn spots. (J.B. Holmes, K.J. Choi, Y.E. Yang and D.A. Points already being exempt, you’d have to think D.J. Trahan and J.P. Hayes could sneak in. Unless, of course, S.S.P. Chowrasia came over and went on a tear.)

The bottom line is, Local Final Qualifying used to provide a huge amount of flavor and helped make it truly the Open Championship. A colleague just today recalled how in 2000 Dean Robertson celebrated his successful LFQ bid by singing into the evening like Sinatra to patrons at the Dunvegan Hotel. Five years later, Brad Faxon traveled from the U.S. and played beautifully at Lundin Links, shooting 64-69 to make it into the Open Championship at St. Andrews.

So enamored were they with Faxon for doing what so many pros wouldn’t dream of doing that Lundin Links members saluted the American with an impromptu toast. A warm sun still shined well past the dinner hour when the club’s vice-captain called Faxon “a sportsman” and a “true competitor,” and he was right on both counts.

Sadly, there’s not much need for such tributes anymore. There will be four LFQ sites for this year’s festivities at St. Andrews with only a dozen spots up for grabs.

What once was open is now closed.

Such a shame.

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