Why this history-making female pro wasn’t granted same perk as male winners
Last week, a 37-year-old Arizona pro became just the fourth woman to win a PGA of America section championship.
With scores of 70-67-73, Kim Paez, a PGA player development director for clubmaker Ping, beat a field of nearly all male competitors at the Southwest PGA Championship, marking the first time a woman has won the event in its 66-year history.
Paez pocketed $9,000 for her one-shot victory at We-Ko-Pa’s Cholla course, but there’s a far more valuable prize that historically has gone to the winner that she didn’t get: a PGA Tour exemption.
Among the perks awarded to the Southwest PGA Championship victor is a spot in the following year’s WM Phoenix Open, the PGA Tour’s liveliest and best-attended event. But there’s a caveat, which the field was made aware of before the tournament: To qualify for the exemption, players must play from the back tees during the championship, which on the final day at We-Ko-Pa measured 7,211 yards. Female entrants had the option of playing 85 percent of that yardage — which is what Paez elected to do — but should one of those women win, she would have to forgo the exemption.
That meant the Tour invite at the We-Ko-Pa event instead went to runner-up Jesse Mueller, who will tee it up in his third WM Phoenix Open next year.
Paez’s reaction? It’s all good.
“I don’t mean to sound like I’m belittling myself, but the chances for me to even try and compete with these PGA Tour players, it’s a little silly,” she told GOLF.com in an interview earlier this week. “I would just be lost in the shuffle. I wouldn’t even sniff the cut.”
Paez will get an exemption into 2024 PGA Professional Championship at Fields Ranch at PGA Frisco in Texas, where the top-20 finishers will earn a spot in the 2024 PGA Championship at Valhalla. But even if Paez plays from the back tees in the Frisco event and finishes in the top 20, she still wouldn’t get a Valhalla bid because qualifiers must have played from the back tees at both the section and national level.
“My biggest goal when I entered this Southwest section championship was honestly to finish top five and just qualify for the national championship,” Paez said. “To win it is just a bonus. And it’s been a dream come true. I am very blessed. And I feel honored to even be where I’m at right now. So, yeah, I have no hard feelings about not being able to compete in any of the Waste Management or the PGA Championship.”
Another female pro who knows a thing or two about making history is Suzy Whaley, who in 2002 became the first woman to win a PGA section championship when she triumphed at the Connecticut PGA Championship. That title earned her a berth at the following year’s Greater Hartford Open on the PGA Tour, despite the fact that she had played from a shorter set of tees than her male competitors.
In the aftermath of Whaley’s victory, the PGA of America issued a rule that stipulated women must play from the same tees as male competitors to qualify for PGA Tour events. At the 2003 Greater Hartford Open, Whaley played from the championship tees and missed the cut by 13 with rounds of 75-78.
Of the six women who have competed on the PGA Tour (Babe Zaharias, Shirley Spork, Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie, Brittany Lincicome and Whaley), only one has made the cut: Zaharias, who did it three times in 1945.
When asked for her opinion on the exemption rule, Whaley, who served as the PGA of America’s first female president from 2018-20, told GOLF.com by email: “I do know when you enter you are given the chance to choose the same tees to play or a different tee. If you choose the different tee, you are aware that you are ineligible to play in the PGA Tour/Korn Ferry events.”
But Whaley also proposed a potential solution.
“It would be great if sections that had a PGA Tour or Korn Ferry exemption also had an opportunity to offer an Epson or LPGA exemption if the winner of the event is female and chose to play a different tee,” she wrote. “Obviously the tours would have to partner with the sections but it would give a female winner an amazing earned opportunity.”
Paez, who played collegiately at the University of California-Irvine, became a PGA member in December; the Southwest PGA Championship was her first tournament as a member. She has never played in an LPGA event, but said she would jump at the chance.
“If that were offered to me, that would be a dream come true because I tried going to Q-school a couple years,” she said. “It was tough. It was expensive, which is why I decided to go through this route in the golf industry. But to just even say that I was able to play in an LPGA event, that’s a check off my bucket list, to have that opportunity and to see how I could perform there.”
Of Whaley’s proposal, Paez sad: “I think that I would agree with that idea. I would love for that kind of an opportunity.”