LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- For an organization that will summarily and mercilessly disqualify a player for making an honest mistake on a scorecard, the PGA Tour is having a pretty confusing month in terms of bookkeeping.
For the second time in three weeks, a player with a solid PGA Tour pedigree has become embroiled in a perplexing, maddening eligibility issue, but this one trumped the other by a thousand yards because it involved the leader of the Disney World event and one of the most successful players of the past two decades.
After shooting his lowest score in more than a year, 12-time tour winner and former Ryder Cup star Justin Leonard learned that his playing status for 2012 was not exactly cast in concrete, despite what he was told two months ago over the phone by tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
The message he heard was loud and clear. Turns out there was some static on the line, after all.
Leonard entered this week's season finale, the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, at No. 144 on the money list, or 19 spots outside the position needed to retain his full status for next year. Mindful of his poor season, he said he called the tour a few weeks back and was told his fully exempt status in '12 was secure, which confused him, too.
"I am exempt for next year, so I'm not playing with that kind of pressure," Leonard shrugged after signing for a 9-under 63, the best score of the week.
Not so fast, brother.
The math didn’t seem to add up. He hasn’t won in three years and his 10-year exemption for winning the 1997 British Open is long gone. Even the media guide lists him as being eligible through the 2011 season, based on his 87th-place finish on the money list last year.
"I don’t know, I just am," Leonard said after the round. "I gave the same [confused] look to the telephone. 'How is this guy still exempt?'"
In a matter of minutes, that question fast became the elephant in the media center after Leonard claimed a share of the second-round lead with rookie Bio Kim and veteran Henrik Stenson. Over the next hour or two, he felt about as secure as Bambi when the hunters came around.
Leonard, who ranks 10th in career earnings, owns a couple of exemptions he can use for being in the top 50 and top 25 on the career money list, but doesn’t want to burn them. He's only 39.
After a couple of scribes continued to raise the question of why he was exempt for 2012, or what the tour's explanation was when he posed the query directly, Leonard grew increasingly concerned and tour officials at headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., were contacted.
At one point, Leonard turned to a media official in the Disney media center and said, "You need to figure this out, because I could have put in my money, gone to Q-school and saved those two money-list exemptions."
Can you say, "awkward?" The deadline for entering Qualifying School has passed. As he waited, a look at the tour's internal computer system indicated that Leonard was exempt through 2012 with regard to his status, but that hardly made Leonard feel better.
As he waited for clarification, a first-blush review by a tour official who handles eligibility issues created more temporary confusion. Leonard was told that the only exempt status he seemingly had for 2012 seemed to be in the form of his career money-list exemptions.
"I just ate and now I am going to go throw up," Leonard said as he walked into the hallway.
While awaiting a verdict, Leonard was spotted in his courtesy car, talking in animated fashion on his cell phone. He had planned to join his family at one of the Disney theme parks -- he has four kids -- and instead was on a white-knuckle ride without leaving the parking lot. It took 90 minutes of phone calls and numbers crunching before the tour confirmed that the initial word Leonard was given was correct after all. Then it took another hour before the complex explanation was released.
As one guy following the soap opera in Tweeterville cracked, "the next 10 guys on the money list should try the same thing."
The explanation centers on his '97 British win, which carried an exemption through the 2007 season. His five victories amassed in that span extended the exemption further. So, even though Leonard hasn’t won since the summer of 2008 in Memphis -- the longest victory drought of his career -- the extension carried him through 2012.
By then, barring a victory this week in the Disney season finale, it will have been four years since his last win. So with the matter resolved, in a Happiest Place on Earth context, Leonard has already won this week in a manner of speaking.
Interestingly, it marked the second time in three weeks that a player has been caught up in the tour's a paperwork netherword. Jason Gore, a past tour winner now playing on the Nationwide Tour, was driving to a Monday qualifier for the Frys.com Open in San Jose three weeks ago when he got a call from the Fry's tournament director to inform him that he had been granted a sponsor exemption.
Good news, no? Only the latter.
Minutes later, a tour official phoned Gore to say that he wasn't eligible to accept the invitation. Gore earlier had withdrawn from future Nationwide Tour events so he would have some starts on that tour in 2012 as a result of mid-season surgery earlier this year. However, Gore said the tour instead withdrew him from both Nationwide and PGA Tour events, leaving him ineligible to take the Frys.com Open tournament spot.
This stuff is so confusing, it's no wonder Leonard took the easy way out two months ago and just accepted the telephonic explanation.
After the stomach-churning two hours Friday, the two days on the Magnolia Course this weekend will seem like, in theme-park terms, child's play.