Sponsor Exemptions are a hot topic in the golf world these days on the heels of Steph Curry’s appearance at last year’s Fannie Ellie Mae Classic on the Web.com Tour and Tony Romo’s upcoming spot in the field at the Corales Punta Cana Resort and Club Championship on the PGA Tour. Critics of these exemptions point to the more deserving players who aren’t getting a spot.
In my opinion, those gripes are misplaced, as these unrestricted sponsor spots usually never go to the guys who are next on the list or to promising up-and-comers. Tournament organizers can do pretty much whatever they want with them (there are also restricted spots, which have more strings attached). Agents often call in favors (often leveraging the appearance of a star client who is in the field to demand a spot for one of their lesser-known players – not a great look). Tournaments sometimes give a spot to a local club pro who has game (no issue with that). Past champs on hard times plead for a spot – Mike Weir gets starts, past-PGA Tour champs who are within a few years of the Champions Tour get spots to prep (shoutout Frank Lickliter 2.0), etc. Those are the beneficiaries of many of most of these spots.
Let’s look at the case of Steph Curry – one of the best athletes on the planet. He sold a ton of tickets, got people pumped up about a Web event about which they’d otherwise be unaware, helped keep the sponsor happy on a tour that needs more sponsors (especially for events in California and the Southeast) AND he held his own in the process? That seems like a huge win for the tour, and the sport at large.
Is there a line? Absolutely. But thus far the organizers have used discretion as to the celebrity element (though Jerry Rice was a little iffy). Although there are certainly whispers of some under-the-table dealings with spots at certain events (not dissimilar to the wink-wink appearance fees on the Euro Tour), recipients of those spots have at least been qualified (until last week).
Esta es la otra Colombia ?? de la que me siento orgulloso ????mientras los entendidos del golf colombiano celebraban un mal golpe y se burlaban durante la primera ronda , estos Valientes niños defendían mi trabajo y mi nombre, se enfrentanron contra aquellos que tomaban vídeos y los hacían vírales para generar destrucción, ojalá el gremio del golf colombiano que me atacó tanto por jugar mal y por todas las razones que desconozco, aprendan de esta Colombia , felicitaciones Valientes ?????
A post shared by Julio Bell (@lamaquinajcb) on Feb 11, 2018 at 6:23am PST
Now let’s look at last week’s Web Tour stop down in Bogota, the Club Colombia Championship, which failed to use any discretion whatsoever. You may have seen some tweets about Julio Bell (pictured above, and better known colloquially by the self-glossed nickname “La Maquina”). Bell entered the event under suspicious circumstances and proceeded to shoot 93 in the first round and 105 in the second round. Below are Bell’s autumnal scorecards from both rounds:
Initially, the golf twitterati were quite taken by the whole situation. There was talk of La Maquina blaming his high scores on the fact that he couldn’t hit driver on the range (facility tops out at 220 yards). Digging deeper, it appears “La Maquina” wears out the GC Am Tour (make sure to click through to the photo gallery; some gems in there). He recently underwent a massive equipment change, swapping out the Titleist sticks listed in his WITB and joining the battalion of PXG troops. He also participated (albeit as an amateur) in the venerable Diamond Resorts Invitational event a few months ago.
Bell claims to have picked up golf as a passion four years ago and thusly moved to Florida to train with “Coach Joey D,” who trains Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, among others. Bell’s instagram sheds light on his life in and around the South Florida golf community. Throughout Friday there were widespread rumors abound that Bell had bought his way into the tournament by way of a sizable fee AND that he’d also be in the field for the aforementioned Punta Cana event.
Then, after his 105 on Friday, Bell declined to turn in his scorecard and went AWOL.
Word from my friends in the scoring trailer is that Julio “The Machine” Bell wouldn’t turn in a card after that 105 and got DQ’d. If you’re gonna shoot it, own it.
— Edward Loar Tracker-When Birdies & BBQ Collide?? (@EdLoarTracker) February 9, 2018
After the social interwebs predictably erupted with the no-card news, Bell issued a press release on Sunday via instagram in Spanish and made sure to include his various social outlets plus his WhatsApp number (both original and translation below):
On Sunday I reached out to Mr. Bell via WhatsApp for comment:
Bell’s recollection didn’t quite jive with what I’d heard, so I reached out to three well-placed sources who were on the ground in Bogota and witnessed the saga play out. They confirmed the following:
- After he didn’t turn in his card, officials searched the premises for him, to no avail.
- On Saturday morning the promoter in charge of the event located Bell, who relayed that he wanted to meet with Web.com Tour officials (who simply wanted his card).
- Sources attributed Bell’s sudden change of heart to the realization that scores were posted online anyway, and would display despite the NC/DQ.
- Bell then attempted to come back onsite anyway but was denied entry to Country Club de Bogota.
- Officials have contacted Florida State Golf Association to investigate how his club validated his scores (he was listed as a +1.3 handicap).
- The tournament promoter adamantly expressed (to media, officials and players alike) that no monies exchanged hands for the spot in the field. This claim was met with skepticism.
I expected this post to summarize a straightforward bit of absurdity, yet it yielded both troubling results and impassioned feedback from players I reached out to. To put it bluntly, guys are pissed.
Circling back to the recent discussion of sponsor exemptions, and specifically that of Curry, many critics cited the integrity of the competition as a concern for letting a celebrity compete. However, Web officials ran the Curry deal through the highest levels of Tour hierarchy, vetted his game, and grouped him with guys who confirmed they’d like to play with him and endure the extra attention.
Now juxtapose that with a random guy allegedly buying his way into an event on the same tour and then failing to crack 90, all while playing with two legitimate professionals who were randomly paired with him while trying to earn a living. That is the very definition of compromising the integrity of the competition. Those two unwitting participants, Jimmy Stanger and Jim Knous, are both promising players who are fronting sizable expenses each week to make a living on the Web.com Tour (Stanger fresh out of UVA with a storied collegiate career, Knous out of Colorado School of Mines and having bounced around for a bit between the mini-tours and with partial Web status this year). Said expenses were abnormally high over the past month with events in the Bahamas, Panama, and Colombia. While some might say that this is the stuff you have to deal with on the mini-tours, I’d argue that the Web.com Tour isn’t a mini-tour. The top 62 players out there last year earned at least six figures before expenses. Add to that the carrot of a promotion to the PGA Tour and this is as close as you can get to the big show.
That both Stanger and Knous proceeded to make the cut is staggering. Stanger finished T20, banking nearly $7K, and Knous finished T16, taking home nearly $11K. Both were good sports about it on Twitter, but neither should’ve never been put in that position to begin with.
This week, on #StangerThings, I head to Colombia to play in a https://t.co/H4AfwyxlPD tour event with a guy who shoots 93, 105 the first two rounds. I get sick for round 1, then make the cut on the number, and shoot -5 on the weekend for a t-20 finish.
— Jimmy Stanger (@jimmy_stanger) February 11, 2018
He was kind, played pretty fast, and stayed relatively out of the way. We did have a seizable crowd who clapped every time he hit the golf ball. Otherwise, I would say he hit some shots a guy who shoots 105 would hit.
— Jimmy Stanger (@jimmy_stanger) February 11, 2018
Shout out to my friends at Country Club de Bogotá, they’re the best in the business! Glad I could take advantage of the early season start and battle to a top-20 finish. #ClubColombiaChampionship #TeamHardK pic.twitter.com/nVgwCUCQ1w
— Jim Knous (@JimmyHardK) February 12, 2018
In the midst of researching this story Camilo Durán, a member of Country Club de Bogota, reached out to express his dismay at how this incident reflects upon the relatively nascent golf community in Colombia and to offer some background on how this all went down:
“This week’s show with ‘La Maquina’ demonstrated to the world (again) how we handle things for money. As a golfer I am still fighting to make things right, what happened this week was all about money and not golf.
“I am 21 years old, finishing my undergrad in the Bay Area at at Saint Mary’s College in California. I am a scratch golfer and basically eat, sleep and breath golf. With a friend of mine we are starting a blog to show the world the real golf talent in Colombia. The organizer of the tournament is German Calle Jr. He gave Country Club de Bogota a spot (I participated in the qualifier, which was won by Daniel Faccini), gave spots to two professionals (Ricardo Celia and Sebastian Muñoz) and one to Mr. La Maquina. La Maquina has spent a lot of money promoting his fake profile and attends PGA events to take pictures with pro golfers so that people back in Colombia think he is actually a part of that group. He also paid different Colombian media outlets to show that image of him. Now they are trying to get away with it by saying that Julio Bell was simply “invited” to the tournament.
The other recipients of exemptions finished as follows: Sebastian Muñoz (69-69-75-70, T47); (Ricardo Celia (75-69, MC); Daniel Faccini (74-76, MC)
I reached out to another member of Country Club de Bogota, who confirmed the facts put forth by Durán and affirmed the sentiments he espoused. A quick google search yielded some of the fawning coverage Mr. Bell has received in his native country. Digging deeper into the recesses of Colombian Golf Twitter, there is a dedicated #GrowTheGame cohort who despise the message this sends about golf in their country:
Increible que en este pais el profesional en formacion que mejor 2017 tuvo como lo es Nicolas Echavarria no tenga cupo para el Web de Bogota y un pedazo de chambon como lo es Julio Bell si.
La corrupcion esta a todos los niveles en Colombia.
— Esteban Restrepo (@ERestrepo17) February 1, 2018
(translation: Its incredible how in this country the best player of 2017, Nicolas Echavarria didn’t get the spot in the Web.com held at CCB and a piece of crap like Julio Bell did. Corruption is in all levels of Colombia.)
Creo que todos los golfistas del pais coincidimos en la misma opinion de Julio Bell. Pero el que si pelo el cobre esta semana es el Sr. German Calle Jr. Que habla y habla de como el crece el golf en Colombia y esta semana se vendio y vendio a los golfistas de este pais por $$$
— Esteban Restrepo (@ERestrepo17) February 9, 2018
(translation: I think that all golfers in the country have the same opinion of Julio Bell. But the one who paid it all this week was Mr. German Calle Jr. He talks and talks about how golf in Colombia is growing and all he did this week was to sell himself and the golfers of this country for $$$)
Naturally, I turned my attention to Mr. German Calle, the tournament organizer/promoter, whose Twitter profile reads as follows: “Golf Entrepreneur/President of Golf Link.” GolfLink also plays some sort of role in putting on the aforementioned Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship, as well as the now defunct Servientrega Championship, a Web Event played in ’15 and ’16 at TPC Cartagena.
Interestingly, GolfLink was honored with the Web.com Tour’s President’s Award in 2016, given annually to “the tournament of the year.” In addition, the feedback I’ve gathered from Web Tour alums and current players supports that acclaim and they say the crowds come out in droves and that it would be one of the top tier Web events in the United States. While the Web Tour has thus far elected to accept the negative chicanery that comes along with an otherwise stellar event, a deeper look into the inner-workings of this event may be in short order. Tour leadership made definite strides for 2018 and listened to player feedback (in terms of consolidating the schedule, easing cross-country travel, and bringing on new sponsors/events). I imagine this issue might make it on the agenda of improvements for 2019.
As for who would’ve been a better recipient of Julio Bell’s spot – the runner-up of the ’17 Abierto de Colombia (a stalwart event on that PGA Tour Latinoamerica circuit and the country’s national open) springs to mind. That player, Nicolas Echavarria would’ve been a fantastic addition to the field and a player of interest to the fans.
I reached out to Mr. Calle to ask about payment, handicap verification and the process for selecting participants. Mr. Calle has not responded as of yet. I also reached out to a spokesman for the Web.com Tour, who politely declined official comment. I did dig into the Tour’s policy on exemptions, which states that they are at the sole discretion of the individual tournament provided the player meets the handicap index requirement of 0.0. In this case, Mr. Bell’s +1.3 index at Tranquilo Golf Club (the Four Seasons Orlando Resort’s course, designed in 2014 by The Faz) passed the objective measure. Of course, there’s always the subjective element that the tournament could’ve employed when a guy who calls himself “The Machine” shows up and proceeds to look like a guy who can’t break 90 during the practice rounds (I’m told there is precedent for that on the Champions Tour).
We will keep this article updated with any new developments as necessary. (Awaiting comment from the Florida State Golf Association’s Director of GHIN Services, as well as the head golf professional at Tranquilo Golf Club.)
Update 2/13/2018 at 10:31am: The FSGA responded and directed me to section 9-2a of the USGA Handicap Manual.
Update 2/13/2018 at 11:03am: Sebastian Munoz qualified on his own merit and did not receive a sponsor exemption. Instead, a player out of the Dominican Republic named Hiram Silfa received that exemption and shot 81-82 to miss the cut. Looking at Silfa’s record he’s played almost exclusively in tournaments managed by GolfLink over the past few years, which raises some questions. In addition, Justin Hueber (fully exempt on Web Tour + friend of the pod) reached out to share a funny tidbit. He won the 2016 Colombian Open, had some conditional Web status that year and reached out to the tournament regarding a spot in the event. He did not hear back until three weeks ago, when they sent him an email stating that they’d already given the spots to local professionals. At that point the request was nearly two years old.
Update 2/13/2018 at 2:09pm: Scott Blanchard, Head Golf Pro at Tranquilo Golf Club, replied and stated “it is the club’s policy to not comment on any of our members.”