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At Arnold Palmer's 'signature' event, less doesn't feel like more

March 05, 2024
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Icon Sportswire

ORLANDO — The same big-name players getting together in a limited-field, big-money tournament has its appeal, but originality isn’t part of the package.

Before the LIV Golf League came along, there were World Golf Championships. Now we have signature events.

Just 69 men tee it up Thursday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, already the fourth signature event this year on the PGA Tour and the first one that truly doesn’t need the designation. This is a tournament whose logo features the signature of perhaps the most consequential player in the history of the game.

The longtime invitational at Bay Hill Club began offering a bloated $20 million purse last year when it was referred to as an “elevated” event. Not sure what has been elevated in the 12 months since then, which is maybe why the tour opted to change the nomenclature. The event invited its traditional 120-player field in 2023, but barely more than half that number this year. If we’re doing the math right, that means Arnie’s Army is getting barely more than half the entertainment value it offered in 2023.

It was the same at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Genesis Invitational.

At least they’re still playing 72 holes.

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Will Zalatoris speaks during a press conference at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Keyur Khamar

This is not the doing of tournament officials. The tour cooked up this formula—or simply reheated it—and decided to serve it up to golf fans on eight occasions. Fans undoubtedly appreciate the attendance of many of the top players in the game, especially now that most of them aren’t exactly going out of their way to compete in the non-signature editions. And viewers at home get to see Jordan and Rory and Rickie and Scottie, et al. That sells.

But Bay Hill deserves more than this. Arnold Palmer helped in the creation of the PGA Tour with the thought of offering better playing opportunities for touring pros, among other considerations. He wouldn’t like what the tour has foisted on his namesake event.

The atmosphere on the grounds was muted all day. Granted, it was only Tuesday, but you just noticed an emptiness to the place, for lack of a better description. Will Zalatoris used the word, “bizarre,” when asked about it.

“I came out yesterday to practice for a couple hours and it feels like no one's here,” he said. “It doesn't feel bigger. I wish I could give you a better answer than just different. It’s a different feel.”

A signature event presumably is supposed to feel bigger, more important. Sorry, but if you have an event that once was hosted by Arnold Palmer, you don’t need much else for it to be special. We guess offering 700 FedEx Cup points to the winner might increase its importance. At least to the winner.

“Yeah, they feel special,” Xander Schauffele said of signature events, citing reasons for his sentiment beyond cash and FedEx Cup currency. “I want to win them more than a non-signature event. I know there's better players playing in this tournament. The courses and the tournaments hold a lot of history.”

In other words, it’s signature because it’s Arnie’s place or because they play at Pebble Beach or Riviera, where the host is Tiger Woods, or at Muirfield Village later this year, where Jack Nicklaus, who spearheaded the tour’s founding with Palmer, hosts the Memorial Tournament.

Oh, and because the competition is good. Very good. So score one for attracting a marquee field.

That said, in countering the LIV insurgency and attempting to raise the status of a handful of events, the tour has ventured down a path that might need correcting. The have-nots of the tour are noticing the disparity in their opportunities and rewards, and they seem like they have a legitimate gripe when only one winner this year has been ranked inside the top 50 in the world—Hideki Matsuyama in the Genesis. Adam Scott, a sponsor’s exemption this week, months ago admitted that this latest foray into attempting to inject more value into a sporting event with fewer competitors could be revisited in 2025.

It does bring more value. To the players.

The hope here is that once the tournament begins on Thursday, the crowds will swarm Bay Hill, a leaderboard of stars emerges, and television ratings rebound from their early-season rut. And then we’ll assess how the rest of the signature tournaments play out.

Of course, we already know one way they will play out—with less play.