Mike Weir will return to the PGA Tour Thursday at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am after a seven-month absence. But the 2003 Masters champion who underwent elbow surgery last August won’t play next week in the Northern Trust Open, which he won in 2003 and 2004, because he wasn’t given one of eight exemptions that the tournament sponsor can use.
Weir, who will turn 42 in May, was both surprised and disappointed when he learned the bad news. He is not only a fairly recent two-time winner, but he’s a student of, and loves, the classic Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. He has said so publicly. Weir appreciates it so much that Ian Andrew, his design partner, made a special trip there to study it with Weir.
“It’s hard to believe that a two-time champion, and within the last nine years, would not be given an exemption,” Bill Paul, the RBC Canadian Open’s tournament director, said Wednesday. “I am not saying that as a Canadian. I know there are tough choices, but he is a former champion. I don’t know of too many tournaments that would reject a former champ. Oh well, maybe they have other reasons.”
Weir did not want to comment on his not receiving an exemption, probably because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his chance of getting sponsors’ invitations into other tournaments if he needs them. Mike Bone, the Northern Trust Open’s general manager, responded to an inquiry from The Globe and Mail about why Weir wasn’t issued an exemption. He chose to provide a statement through the PGA Tour rather than agree to a request for an interview.
“Mike Weir is a tremendous competitor, and, as you point out, he has a great record at the Northern Trust Open, with back-to-back wins in 2003 and 2004,” Bone said. “We have nothing but respect for him as a player and a person and are so happy to see that he’s making a return to the PGA Tour after struggling with an elbow injury in 2011.
“However, choosing the recipients of our sponsor exemptions is very difficult.”
Bone said that the Northern Trust receives “dozens and dozens of requests every year from many qualified candidates from the amateur and professional ranks, yet we have only eight exemptions to offer. We have to consider several variables when making the final decision, and while Mike was not offered an exemption this year, we wish him the best throughout the 2012 season.”
That’s all boilerplate stuff, and doesn’t say much about what went into denying Weir an exemption. In fact, the tournament offered 10 exemptions, of which the sponsor granted its usual allotment of eight.
The sponsor’s exemptions include, among others: Fred Couples, the 1990 and 1992 champion, and one of the game’s most popular players; Patrick Cantlay, a junior at UCLA and the top-ranked amateur in the world who played some great golf on the PGA Tour last year; South Korean K.T. Kim; PGA Tour rookies Billy Hurley III and Erik Compton, a first-rate player who has had two heart transplants; and Californian Jason Gore, who got in after he initiated a furious Twitter campaign.
Meanwhile, the PGA Tour, which has two commissioner’s foreign exemptions at its disposal, gave them to Japanese players Ryo Ishikawa and Yuta Ikeda. Given that Weir is Canadian, he falls into the category of player eligible for a foreign exemption.
A source close to the events that transpired around Weir but who did not want to be identified speculated that Asian television could be a priority with Northern Trust, a Chicago-based financial services company that has Asia-Pacific operations. Bone did not respond by deadline Wednesday to a question about whether this influenced the exemptions given. Riviera is owned by Japanese interests.
Weir can still play his way into the Northern Trust, by finishing in the top 10 this week at Pebble Beach. He tied for third at the AT&T in 2003 and finished second in 2005.
“I’m ready to play,” Weir said in an e-mail the other day. It’ll be his first tournament action since he withdrew from the Canadian Open last July with recurring elbow troubles.