Tiger Woods joins list of prominent past champions to get U.S. Open special exemption

When recency bias locks arms with a sporting idol and mixes with today’s wall-to-wall media landscape, you get these things.

Therefore, it’s natural for anyone in a post-Baby Boomer generation to assume, if Tiger Woods has never done it, it’s never been done.

And that’s why so many folks have just become familiar with something called the Special Exemption, which has nothing to do with the tax code or even transferable student debt.

Last week, the U.S. Golf Association offered Tiger an exemption into this year’s U.S. Open — June 13-16 on the historic No. 2 course in the North Carolina hamlet of Pinehurst. The ever-hopeful legion of Tiger fans as well as longtime onlookers did a double-take at the headline.

“What? Tiger Woods wasn’t automatically eligible for the U.S. Open? It’s been that long?”

Time flies, even when you’re limping along.

Of the four majors, the Masters and PGA Championship offer lifetime entries to past champs, though they reserve the right to serve up an “ahem” once a past champ’s golfing acumen starts teetering toward self-embarrassment.

Roughly a third of the 156-man field for the U.S. Open gets there through local and regional qualifiers (this is what makes it “Open”), but for the better established, the Open has many eligibility avenues, including a 10-year exemption for anyone winning the tournament.

Tiger’s 2008 U.S. Open victory exemption ended in 2018 but he maintained automatic entry for another five years with his 2019 Masters win, which carried him through the 2023 U.S. Open, which was the third straight he’d skipped due to ongoing physical issues.

And just like that, here we are in the ongoing, unapologetic and undefeated march of Father Time: Tiger needs a special exemption. It’s not like we were gonna see him attempting the one-day, 36-hole qualifier.

While Tiger’s universal fan base might be saddened a bit at reaching this unfortunate milepost, others will suggest this is nothing but a show of favoritism and quite likely just a nod to the broadcasting network and other promoters.

Well, yeah, of course. And by the way, it’s not the first time. Or the last, most likely.

The first special exemption went to four-time Open champ Ben Hogan in 1966 (his diehards insist he won five Opens, but that’s another story for another day). It was 11 years before the USGA granted another, and in ’77 they actually handed out three — to Sam Snead, Tommy Bolt and Julius Boros.

1978 U.S. Open
1978 U.S. Open

Arnold Palmer on the 18th hole during the 1978 U.S. Open at the Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver.

Arnold Palmer accepted the first of four straight exemptions in 1978, and Jack Nicklaus would become a regular grantee in the ’90s, but Arnie being Arnie, even when exemptions and automatic entries weren’t available, he was the rare golfing god who wasn’t above trying to earn his way into the championship through the grueling one-day qualifier.

Hell, Arnie was shy of 40 and still winning tournaments when he made the Open through a qualifier in 1969. The King’s successful qualifying effort was chronicled brilliantly in Sports Illustrated (remember that?) by Curry Kirkpatrick.

Thus the biggest name in golf was forced to play 36 holes at McKeesport alongside a bunch of people – Harry Harold, Billy Capps, Herky Smith – whose names sound like disc jockeys and others who played out of places like the Host Farm Resort Motel.

Arnie would finish sixth in that year’s U.S. Open (Orville Moody made it his lone PGA Tour victory) and maintained his yearly eligibility through ’76, qualified again in ’77 and began a four-year run of special exemptions in ’78. After that, even deep into his 50s, he continued trying to qualify, though unsuccessfully.

No one expects to see Tiger trudging through 36 holes of qualifying in the future. In fact, after watching his Saturday-Sunday struggles at the 2024 Masters, the gravediggers are back to burying his golfing future entirely – is this the third or fourth time?

But assuming Tiger can putt a lick on Pinehurst’s infamous turtle-back greens, he has a couple of things on his side. June in Pinehurst is warm-to-hot, and the course is practically a boardwalk compared to, say, Augusta National and its 1-through-18 elevation changes.

Oh, there’s also some history on his side. Just a sliver, but still, some history. In 1990, Hale Irwin was 11 years removed from his second U.S. Open victory when he accepted a special exemption. At 45, he became the oldest Open champ.

Of course, it needs to be said. Irwin was a few years younger than Tiger, but more importantly he was healthy and a PGA Tour rarity – an actual athlete who’d been a two-time All-Big Eight defensive back at Colorado.

At Medinah in ’90, Irwin also had to work 91 holes – an 18-hole Monday playoff with Mike Donald was forced to sudden death, where Irwin won with birdie on the first hole.

There’s indeed no free lunch, Irwin learned, but a seat at the table is always appreciated and can pay off.

We’ll know more about Tiger’s appetite for major-championship golf after the PGA Championship in Louisville, where the Valhalla Golf Club is blanketed by Kentucky hardwoods but hardly a walk in the park.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek