When Stephen Curry received an exemption to play in a Web.com Tour event, the biggest fear was that he'd get blown out to sea. He'd shoot two rounds in the 80s, finish in last by five, six, or some larger and uglier number of shots, and embarrass himself at the Ellie Mae Classic.
The over-under for his lowest score was 76.5, and that seemed reasonable. There had been 23 starts by athletes from other sports on the Web.com Tour, and the scoring average was 79.4. Jerry Rice played in this event three times and bombed gloriously, shooting in the 80s with regularity, finishing last by eight shots once, and withdrawing another time after being 23-over through his first 27 holes. John Smoltz, often hailed as one of the top athlete golfers and boasting a plus-handicap at one point, got a start on this Tour and shot 84.
Steph's first shot of the tournament went completely off the grid and landed in the cup holder of a golf cart, and you were already nervous that this experiment was going to get ugly in a hurry:
He made three bogeys in his first six holes, and the excoriating takes from golf purists were already in the oven.
Then he went out and posted 74-74. That should surpass anyone's expectations, even the most optimistic homer. The 74 on Thursday, when the pressure and scrutiny were most intense and Curry admitted he was most nervous, could have been even better. He threw away a couple of shots coming into the clubhouse and could have posted a 73 or 72. And when it looked like it might go bad, Steph held on and avoided the astronomical number. He hit some wayward shots and found himself playing out of the junk quite often, but there were no snowmen or quadruple bogeys or even triple bogeys.
Steph has a good swing, played as the top guy on his high school golf team, is obviously a great athlete, and actually works at the game in his spare time. But it's spare time — he's not a pro and he doesn't grind on this all year like the pros and top amateurs. So the 74-74 was still unexpected. He should be relieved and happy with it. He didn't just avoid embarrassment, but he actually impressed. It was fantastic, and don't let anyone say otherwise.
But no, he can't play professionally
Steph exceeded expectations, but he still finished ahead of just three pros and one amateur in a field of more than 150 players. Pros have bad days and get blown out to sea, too. Steph never had a chance to make the cut, but finishing DFL also was not a lock:
the 11 guys he beat yesterday ALL had bad rounds (for them). 1-2 will again today & finish behind Steph. Was always unlikely he'd finish DFL— Jake Nichols (@jalnichols) August 4, 2017
Steph beating four players over just 36 holes in one event on the Web.com Tour does not mean he could be a pro golfer. It's two rounds. We've see Rory McIlroy get roasted by top college players and ams at the occasional major. That's the fickle nature of the game, and it's always dangerous mining grand theories from small sample sizes.
The week-to-week and year-over-year consistency is what separates Rory from a top amateur or great player on the Web.com Tour. Steph's first two rounds were incredible, but taking it as a sign that he could play professional golf, even on the Web.com Tour, is deluded.
We're now done with the wet blanket portion. This is perfectly fine! Steph's 74-74 is still an amazing accomplishment, and he's quite good at other pursuits. No golfer is going to an NBA D-league game and doing the equivalent of Steph's 74-74, not even Dustin Johnson, who, as you may have heard on every single broadcast, can dunk a basketball. Steph is better at golf than 99 percent of the world and better at basketball than (arguably!) everyone.
The sponsor's exemption debate
When the announcement came that Steph got a spot in the field, the usual uproar about undeserving sponsor's exemptions exploded. This occurs every year, multiple times per year, on every Tour. It happens when John Daly, who has no chance of winning on the PGA Tour, gets a sponsor's exemption. It happens when Mike Weir gets a sponsor's exemption. It happens when some local player with local following and little change of making a cut gets an exemption.
While many pros and golf media praised the inclusion of Steph, there were haters and losers upset that he was taking a spot from a pro, probably better at golf, who was grinding to make a living in the game. The Web.com Tour may not be the highest Tour in golf, but it's pretty close, and a spot in one of its events is a valuable commodity that could, theoretically, go a long way to jump-starting or resurrecting a career.
But sponsor dollars are a major part of what makes the Tour — and all golf tours — run. There are no Tours for anyone to get a shot on unless sponsors back the events, and so they justifiably get a few spots to invite players they want and think will heighten the interest in their event. So while it may be divisive at times, it's a necessary and sensible practice. The use of this exemption for Steph came off as well as any I can remember because of ...
An impact beyond scores
Steph made a dang regular season Web.com Tour event the biggest thing in golf for a couple of days. On Thursday, all anyone on golf Twitter cared about was tracking Steph's round. This was concurrent with the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, one of the PGA Tour's most lucrative and prestigious events, which had 49 of the top 50 players in the world in the field.
The interest he created for the Ellie Mae Classic and Web Tour was enormous, both on the ground and watching from afar. No other fringe pro or other exemption was doing this. Eventual winner Martin Piller even called it the "Steph Curry Invitational" on Sunday.
And the fans and press weren't the only ones obsessively tracking what was going on either. Most of the pros were too. Even the best in the world at that WGC in Akron wanted to know what was happening over on the West Coast. Jordan Spieth tracked it and praised Steph's success.
Jason Day said, "I think it's pretty special for a two-time MVP to be able to shoot 74 at a pro event and beat other pros. I mean, we play our whole lives and the guy plays basketball and he beats some of the pros. It's very impressive to see."
The best in the world were watching, talking, and tweeting about this:
The interest obviously went beyond just the golf world and became a wider sports story. It's one of the most valuable uses of an exemption like this that you'll ever see.
Every tentacle of the golf industry — media, fans, players, governing bodies, equipment companies — attaches the phrase "grow the game" to every damn initiative, or idea, or event. It's now a marketing trick and often a trope used to cloak one's insecurities about the game's place in sports and its future.
The phrase is used so much that it doesn't really have any meaning. But if it does have any definition anymore, Steph's impact playing this pro event and performing well is it.