Lynch: Signature events could use changes, but if stars aren’t inconvenienced, the PGA Tour isn’t listening

For a sport that prides itself on enduring traditions, men’s professional golf has come to be defined by impermanence — of player loyalty, of executive postures, of fan interest, of fiscal prudence and, now, of leadership. The adroit Seth Waugh is departing as CEO of the PGA of America, an organization burdened with a governance model ill-suited to a modern sports organization, while his former Deutsche Bank colleague Martin Slumbers will soon follow at the R&A. The PGA Tour’s leadership team is unchanged, but the same can’t be said of its boardroom and business structure, the reshaping of which will be as radical as it is overdue. Per the cliché, change is inevitable but growth is optional, and the Tour has an early opportunity to demonstrate how quickly it can learn and adapt.

Faced with LIV’s irrational economics, the PGA Tour mimicked the madness, largely because players actually seem to believe themselves worth a multiple of what the market previously dictated. The Brinks trucks delivering on their demands are the signature events, eight limited-field tournaments with $20 million purses that — alongside majors, the Players and the FedEx Cup playoffs — account for almost all appearances top players will make each season.

The last signature event, the Travelers Championship, concluded last week. The concept should be considered a success in that it produced strong leaderboards and something approximating a guaranteed product for sponsors and broadcasters. Still, it’s a learning curve to get this stuff right and it’s not quite right yet.

When possible, signatures are scheduled for consecutive weeks, separated by windows in which those outside of the top 50 (who are automatically exempt) can play their way in. Good on paper, problematic in practice. At a point in the season when rank-and-file members are scrapping for status, too many were furloughed for three weeks because signature stops bookended the U.S. Open. Tournaments that shoulder signatures experience a paucity of star power. Even star players have gripes with the schedule: they gear their years around majors, each with his own preference on how to best prepare and recover. Every major this season was preceded or followed (or both!) by a signature. Add the subtext of Arnold Palmer’s family and Jack Nicklaus thinking they’re running retro U.S. Opens at Bay Hill and Muirfield Village, and players were bruised heading into, respectively, the Players and the actual U.S. Open.

For all that, scheduling is at least less contentious than the other three issues around signatures: field sizes, FedEx Cup points allocations and sponsor exemptions.

Most fields are 70-odd in number, with just three having nominal cuts that dispatch a couple dozen guys. Boosting the number of competitors — say, to 100 — would make for better events, more action for fans and broadcasters, more opportunity for David vs. Goliath storylines and simply more theater for on-site spectators. At the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the bleachers behind the range remained largely deserted because the smaller field teed off in twosomes all day, rather than in morning/afternoon waves that generate a lot more viewing activity.

The rationale for small fields is obvious: less guys to divide $20 million amongst. Instituting a meaningful cut would cap the number cashing checks, but, of course, the risk of being shown the exit after 36 holes doesn’t guarantee money to the very players who wanted these events for, um, guaranteed money. Field size is germane to the notion of the Tour as an entertainment product serving multiple constituents — fans, sponsors, broadcasters and members, though assuredly never in that order of importance. Tiger Woods being gifted a lifetime pass into signature events was dressed up as a reward for career excellence, but it was really about entertainment. If he wants to play, then fans, broadcasters and sponsors sure as hell want to see him. It was the right thing to do, but it speaks to the need for flexibility on fields for the good of the product.

Jordan Spieth looks on from the 14th green during the Pro-Am event prior to the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands on June 19, 2024, in Cromwell, Connecticut. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

The other wrinkles in the signatures cause angst more in locker rooms than living rooms. FedEx Cup points are the Tour’s currency, and most players are okay with the winner of an opposite-field event receiving points equal to the runner-up in a regular Tour event with a stronger field. But a guy finishing 5th in a signature tournament earns the exact same number. The deeper you go, the more vexatious it becomes for journeymen. Twentieth place in a signature equates to 6th place most other weeks.

It’s defensible logic, the kind underpinning the revised Official World Golf Ranking: greater rewards for performing against stronger competition. But at a certain point, mediocre finishes shouldn’t be excessively rewarded. Whether action is needed will be determined in part by the churn, the percentage of top 50 players who lose their eligibility at season’s end. If too many are protected by easy access to FEC points, then a rethink is in order.

The easiest fix relates to sponsor invitations. Companies that post a princely sum for events ought to have latitude in how they use their four golden tickets, and rules obviously apply. But in 2024 Adam Scott and Webb Simpson — both members of the Tour’s Policy Board — each received five free passes into lucrative events they weren’t otherwise eligible for. Those players aren’t violating any rules in asking for or receiving invites, and sponsors are happy to welcome two major champions. Bu.t the optics are lousy, and the quid pro quo is non-existent. There needs to be a cap on the number of signature event sponsor invites a player can receive, and each one he accepts should carry a requirement to play a regular tournament they haven’t visited in recent years. If they’re good enough to add value to a signature, they’re good enough to do the same for a lesser event.

The only one of these quibbles apt to be addressed in time is the schedule, since it’s the only issue that could negatively impact top players, the group to whom the new product is being catered. Field sizes, points allocations and free passes don’t present a problem for stars, and thus are unlikely to do so for Tour management either.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek