It’s so incredibly difficult to get a spot in a PGA Champions Tour event that 78 golfers have already paid $220 to play in a pre-qualifying tournament just to get a sniff at the official qualifying playoff for Tucson’s Cologuard Classic.
That’s known as a play-in for the play-in.
Not even John Daly qualifies for the Cologuard Classic, although his chances to get one of two remaining sponsor’s exemptions from the Tucson Conquistadores are, shall we say, favorable.
“It’s the hardest Tour to get in,” says Judy McDermott, executive director of the Tucson Conquistadores, who then listed a group of U.S. Open winners and PGA Tour champions likely to get shut out of Tucson’s March 1-3 tournament.
That’s why it’s always better to ask “who’s in?” than “who’s out?” on the Champions Tour, whose events are limited to 78 players. That’s half of a regular PGA Tour field.
Who’s in? This year it’s Robert Gamez and David Berganio and it’s déjà vu all over again.
The Conquistadores on Monday confirmed that two of the great names in UA golf history, Gamez and Berganio, have accepted sponsor’s exemptions to the fifth Champions Tour event in Tucson history.
The first reaction is a bit numbing. You’ve got to be 50 to play in a Champions Tour event, and wasn’t it just yesterday that Gamez and Berganio played for the Wildcats?
“We’re hoping these exemptions can do for Robert and David what they did for Jim Furyk,” says McDermott. “Sometimes these sponsor’s exemptions really work out.”
Furyk, a UA grad, was then a 24-year-old first-year pro with no playing privileges on the PGA Tour. The Conquistadores granted Furyk one of the five sponsor’s exemptions at the 1994 Northern Telecom Tucson Open. He turned it into a lifetime pass.
Furyk tied Gamez, of all people, for seventh place. That finish not only was worth $35,475 for Furyk, it qualified him for the following week’s Phoenix Open, at which he did so well he qualified for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where he continued to roll, earning $236,000 that season, No. 78 on the money list.
Furyk has since earned $68.8 million in the PGA Tour, the fourth-highest total in golf history.
Gamez similarly got his start on the PGA Tour via a Conquistadores exemption. It became a pinch-yourself-it’s-true moment.
In early January 1990, a few months after his UA eligibility expired, Gamez asked the Conquistadores for an exemption. He was told that the last exemption was offered to 1959 Masters champion Art Wall, then living in Sonoita.
Gamez arranged to fly to Florida to receive the 1989 Jack Nicklaus Award as the college golfer of the year. It was during the trip that he was told Wall had withdrawn from the Tucson Open. Gamez was in.
Amazingly, he won it all.
In his first start as a PGA Tour member, Gamez earned $162,000. But unlike Furyk, Gamez peaked early. He won three times on the PGA Tour but lost his playing privileges in 2001 and has not played a full season on any tour since 2008.
After he turned 50 last summer, Gamez was modestly successful in three Champions Tour events, but does not qualify to play weekly.
Second chance, anyone?
Berganio, possibly the leading player on Arizona’s 1992 NCAA championship team, accepted his first sponsor’s exemption to the Tucson Open as an Arizona senior, 1993.
He finished 68th but declined a $2,434 check to maintain his college eligibility.
Berganio’s pro career began with encouragement; he quickly earned $1.7 million and tied his ASU rival, Phil Mickelson, for first place at the 2001 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
Mickelson won the playoff and soon thereafter Berganio suffered a back injury that has affected his golf for almost 20 years.
His appearance in the Cologuard Classic will be his first Champions Tour event.
The return of Gamez and Berganio to Tucson is a storyline to rank with this year’s appearance of two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, both of whom will be making their first Champions Tour appearances in Tucson.
And then there’s John Smoltz.
On Monday, the Conquistadores celebrated the presence of the Hall of Fame baseball pitcher, who recently accepted one of their five exemptions. Smoltz might be the best golfer to ever play big-league baseball — he qualified for and played in last year’s U.S. Senior Open.
“I’m not afraid to fail,” says Smoltz, 51. “I’m not afraid of the big moment.”
Smoltz has a regular job on which to fall back if golf doesn’t work out. He has become one of the leading TV analysts in baseball, a regular on Fox Sports telecasts.
But for Gamez and Berganio, it’s the chance to revive once-promising golf careers at the place that put them on the map decades ago.