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Why a small controversy speaks to a bigger issue with the PGA Tour

March 01, 2024
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Julio Aguilar

The PGA Tour sells itself as a circuit of meritocracy, where spots aren’t given and players only make what they earn, and it is belief that has become a battle cry in the tour’s war against LIV Golf, a league which is the antithesis of this spirit with guaranteed paydays to players many fans wouldn’t pay to see. The problem for the tour is meritocracy lacks a middle ground. Meritocracy either is, or it isn’t.

Next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational boasts a limited field thanks to its status as a signature event, the competition restricted to the top 50 finishers from last season’s FedEx Cup, along with 15 others (10 from this year’s FedEx Cup standing and five from the full-field event standings between signature events). They are spots that were captured by a performance that speaks to the tour’s true North Star. Except the tour announced Friday four additional entries via sponsor exemptions in Nicolai Hojgaard, Shane Lowry, Adam Scott and Webb Simpson, and this is where it gets problematic. For those last two names risk compromising the very thing the tour stands upon.

Scott and Simpson both serve as PGA Tour player directors, positions that hold outsized importance as the tour and its players attempt to secure the league’s future in golf’s civil war. Given that responsibility, you’re forgiven for thinking these sponsor exemptions could be viewed as kickbacks for their dealings on the tour board … especially since this is not the first time it’s happened. This is Scott’s third exemption into a signature event this season and Simpson’s second out of the three signature events that have offered special invites. Their previous exemptions were already under scrutiny; Golfweek posted a story with anonymous quotes from players during the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am that called their exemptions “fishy,” “shady” and “collusion.” Those Pebble criticisms could have been couched because, ultimately, it was just one tournament. But now that this is becoming a pattern shows their concerns are perhaps warranted.

That player leaders like Scott and Simpson and Peter Malnati (who received a sponsor exemption at Pebble Beach Pro-Am) are being rewarded is understandable. These individuals are sacrificing their time and energy to shape the tour’s trajectory and being. Compared to the motives of other sponsor exemptions—which have ranged from celebrity to nepotism to sponsor favoritism—bestowing spots for work and efforts towards the betterment of the tour is downright noble. Yet, even with good intentions, cronyism is still that, cronyism. We expect that in other aspects of life; in golf, there is supposed to be no special treatment. The course, the opponent and those who come to watch don’t care who you are or who you know or where you’re from; can you golf your ball or not?

Simpson is respected by his peers and has enjoyed a prosperous career, with seven wins (highlighted by the U.S. Open and Players Championship) and over $45 million in earnings. It also a career on the wane, with Simpson logging just one top-five finish in the past three years. For his part, Scott remains a good player, currently 48th in the world; still, it is odd that he’s made just one start this year that he earned on his own accord. Neither player has any real history with Bay Hill; Scott has two top-10s (and one came in 2004), and while Simpson went to Palmer's alma mater, the Wake Forest product has just two top-25 finishes in 11 career API starts.

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Bradley Kanaris

Coming off a West Coast Swing that lacked juice, it’s reasonable that the tour and API officials would want the presence of Scott, a former World No. 1 who has international appeal. And let’s be real: There is not a laundry list of needle-movers who are on the outside looking in at Bay Hill. But there are certainly more players deserving of those spots, and perhaps worst of all are the optics. It’s no secret that the tour’s new signature series has received mixed reviews from its own membership, specifically those in the rank-and-file. Some don’t see these elevated tournaments as a chance to gather the game’s best, instead viewing them as a way for the blue bloods to stay where they’re at—and get paid handsomely in the process—while curbing avenues for social mobility. The entire season has to play out before judging if that perception is reality; conversely, that a number of Korn Ferry Tour grads are struggling to earn starts is amplifying that perception.

It’s not just the internal message that is tainted. One of the reasons LIV Golf was denied ranking points was limited relegation and promotion into the league, which included two players (Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer) keeping their status solely because they were team captains. For fans at home, you don’t have to squint to see the symmetry between their plights and that of Simpson (who finished 141st in the FedEx Cup last year).

The easiest solution would be to get rid of sponsor exemptions for signature events, but look no further than the last signature to see why that won’t happen, as one of the four spots at Riviera was used on tournament host Tiger Woods. Even as he nears 50, Woods remains the star this sport revolves around; if Woods wants to play, the tour—for better or worse—will do everything it can to facilitate that wish. But Woods should be the exception to the rule, and let’s be frank, that’s looking more and more like a theoretical problem.

Of the myriad problems facing professional golf, sponsor exemptions are a low priority, but they’re also a self-inflicted and unnecessary wound and speak to the larger, systemic issues plaguing the tour. Perhaps it’s serendipity that Bay Hill’s exemption announcement coincided with Anthony Kim making his debut at LIV. Kim is playing as a wildcard in Saudi Arabia on LIV’s version of a sponsor exemption. Given his hiatus, it’s fair to question Kim’s validity as a formidable golfer, but there’s no questioning the curiosity around him as an entertainer. LIV is often knocked for being an exhibition; here, at least, there’s value in being an exhibition vehicle. You ultimately have to know what your core product is, and how it’s presented. And just as importantly, what can confuse the messaging.