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Justin Leonard exempt for 2012

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The low score wins in golf, but eligibility issues on the PGA Tour are not always so simple. Justin Leonard learned that in hair-pulling fashion Friday at the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, where he shot 63 to tie for the second round lead.

Leonard, 39, the 1997 British Open champion, entered the tournament 144th on the PGA Tour money list, seemingly in need of a high finish to move into the top 125 and secure his PGA Tour card for 2012.

As he is more than $200,000 behind No. 125 James Driscoll on the money list, Leonard figured to need at least a top-three finish to secure his full exemption for next year.

But that is not how he understood it.

"I did call the tour a couple of months ago and asked about my status," Leonard said. "I'm exempt for next year, so I'm not playing with that kind of pressure. I don't know how, I just am. I gave the same look to the telephone. 'How is this guy exempt?'"

Further questioning about it had Leonard wondering for a couple of hours Friday afternoon if he had received bad information.

And since he thought he was okay for 2012, Leonard never sent in an application and check for the PGA Tour's Qualifying Tournament, which he would have entered to try and regain his status.

The confusion arose because in Leonard's bio in the PGA Tour media guide he was said to be exempt for this year due to finishing 84th on the 2010 money list. When pressed, PGA Tour media officials believed that Leonard was wrong and had been given some bad information.

All of which had Leonard fretting for a few hours as the tour tried to get to the bottom of the situation. For Leonard, who has been working on some issues in his game, there had never been any sense of urgency.

"It has not been a very good year," Leonard said. "I've been working on some things the last three or four months, kind of working with (swing coach) Randy Smith and been doing some work with (mental coach) Mo Pickens and changing how I practice a little bit and doing more drills and things like that.

"I went and saw (putting expert) Dave Stockton Jr. a couple weeks ago. We had a little two-hour session in San Diego. That seems to be paying some dividends. So it hasn't been a good year. I'm looking forward to the year being over. But it's nice to have a chance this week to finish it off on a good note."

All of a sudden, however, Leonard thought things had changed, and he wasn't too pleased knowing that this weekend might be do-or-die for him as for as his exempt status -- when he believed for months he had nothing to worry about.

Leonard is 10th on the all-time money list having won more than $30 million in his career, meaning he could use a one-time exemption next year for being among the top 50. A player in the top 25 of all-time money earned can also use an exemption one time. But that is an exemption players typically like to use later in their careers.

Making matters worse was the fact that Andy Pazder, the tour's vice president and chief of operations who is the eligibility expert, was out of the country. So some time was needed to sort through the mess.

Eventually it was determined that Leonard is exempt for 2012 for reasons that are obscure and easy to misunderstand.

Leonard got a 10-year exemption for winning the 1997 Open, which took him through 2007. But in 2003, eligibility rules were changed to compound victories. So wins in the period after 2003 while he was still on the British Open exemption extended it into future years.

That means Leonard's 2003 Honda Classic victory extended his 10-year exemption for the British another year through 2008. He won twice in 2005, which extended him through 2010. Another victory in 2007 took him through 2011. And when he won the 2008 St. Jude Classic, that gave him another year through 2012.

The 2008 victory was Leonard's last of 12 years, and had many believing he had to finish among the top 125 in order to be exempt next year. Since getting on the PGA Tour full time in 1995, Leonard has never failed to finish among the top 125.

So after some anxious moments, Leonard learned that he is exempt through 2012, no matter what happens this weekend.

But if he were to go ahead and win the tournament, that brings a two-year exemption. Leonard would then be good through 2013.

I've played my way into a great position here," he said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how I feel and what goes on this weekend."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.