Retief Goosen wins the 2004 U. S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, June 20, 2004. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
By John Feinstein
The U.S. Open will begin Thursday morning at Shinnecock Hills with two past champions, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk, teeing it up thanks to special exemptions given to them by the United States Golf Association.
But the most recent champion at Shinnecock will not be here. Retief Goosen won his second Open title here in 2004, beating Phil Mickelson by two shots on an infamous day that the USGA lost control of the golf course. Corey Pavin, who won here in 1995, also requested a special exemption and, like Goosen was denied.
“We’ve only given seven men in history more than one special exemption,” said Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and Open championships. “We gave Retief one when he requested it two years ago.”
The seven men who have received more than one are all in the World Golf Hall of Fame: Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, and Seve Ballesteros. The first four were multiple Open champions. Palmer and Watson won the Open once each. Ballesteros never won an Open but was, well, Ballesteros.
Goosen is a two-time Open champion. He requested an exemption into the Open at Oakmont, and it was granted. Mike Davis, the USGA’s CEO said Wednesday that Goosen was not told then that if he was given an exemption into Oakmont he wouldn’t be given one into Shinnecock.
“We can’t do something like that,” he said. “If we imply to a player that if he doesn’t take an exemption one year, you’re guaranteed one another year, you put yourself in a tough position. What if the player isn’t competitive or hasn’t been playing? Are we then obligated to give him the exemption?”
Goosen is 49 and has three top-20 finishes on the PGA Tour this year—including a T-6 last week in Memphis. When it became apparent earlier this year he wasn’t going to receive an exemption he told the New York Post: “It was disappointing. They rang me up about two weeks ago and told me, ‘Sorry, it doesn’t look like the exemption is going to go to you.’ Obviously, they felt that Ernie and Jim were a bit more qualified for the event.”
The USGA established the precedent for special exemptions in 1950 after Ben Hogan was out of golf for 11 months due to his near-fatal bus accident the previous year and hadn’t played enough to qualify under the normal criteria.
“Obviously, Hogan deserved the exemption that year,” Davis said.
Hogan won the championship.
Since then, special exemptions have gone generally to past Open champions, often on golf courses where they have won or 11 years after a victory when they are in their first year as a non-exempt player: Hale Irwin got into the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah that way and won.
Goosen is about as low key as any star in recent memory. Which is why his comments to the Post were typically balanced and without rancour.
“They gave me an invite a couple years ago, which was surprising,” he said in conclusion.
Not giving him an invite this year was more surprising.
Pavin’s absence is more understandable. He is 59 and last played in a major championship in 2010, though he remains competitive on the PGA Tour Champions.
Hall said earlier this week that giving Goosen a spot would have taken one away from a sectional qualifier. One has to wonder if a more glamorous two-time Open champion had asked for an exemption if it might have been granted.