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‘Collusion,’ ‘fishy’ and ‘shady’ among PGA Tour players’ descriptions of AT&T Pebble Beach’s sponsor exemptions

The PGA Tour’s rank and file are rankled again.

The latest reason? The implementation of the Aon Swing 5 and sponsor exemptions into this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which features an 80-man field, purse of $20 million, no cut and beefed up FedEx Cup points, with 700 awarded to the winner.

“The Tour rated the Swing 5 category above being a Tour winner, which makes absolutely no sense. In every other instance, winning is at the top of the food chain, the No. 1 category, and it should be. Winning on the PGA Tour is hard,” said a veteran PGA Tour player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s just another thing the Tour has done that is complete bullshit.”

Matthieu Pavon, winner last week of the Farmers Insurance Open, and Grayson Murray, winner of the Sony Open in Hawaii, were the top two finishers, followed by Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Kevin Yu and Stephan Jaeger. All five will compete at Pebble Beach Golf Links as the top five FedEx Cup point earners across the last three full-field events – the Sony Open in Hawaii, the American Express and Farmers Insurance Open – not otherwise exempt.

The 80-player field at Pebble Beach includes the top 50 on the 2023 FedEx Cup, Nos. 51-60 on the 2023 FedEx Cup Fall standings, the top finisher on the 2023 Race to Dubai not otherwise exempt (Nicolai Hojgaard), the Aon Swing 5, tournament winners not otherwise exempt (Nick Dunlap), players inside the top 30 on the Official World Golf Ranking not otherwise exempt (Justin Thomas) and four sponsor exemptions. This adds up to 72 players, leaving eight remaining spots via the “fill the field” category.

Multiple players reached out to Golfweek to argue players were originally told during a meeting at the Players Championship last March that winners would be automatically exempt into Signature events. That is still true, but the Swing 5 category, which was designed to give hot and trending players a shot to play their way into the big-money events, falls higher on the priority list than winning.

“Now it’s like, oh, no, winners are part of the Swing 5. That is allowing fewer players to qualify for these events,” a veteran player said. “It’s really disappointing that you’re under the impression that if you play well, you’re going to have the opportunity to get into one of these events and then you don’t. If there are an extra two or three players in this field, who cares at this point? There’s $20 million in the purse.”

Indeed, for the AT&T the Tour resorted to the “fill the field” category, admitting Nos. 62-69 on the 2023 FedEx Cup Fall standings to bring the field to 80 for the pro-am.

A PGA Tour spokesman said staff have been on the road and available to educate players on the makeup of the fields for the signature events and infographics were distributed to players in December. The reason why the winner category is a lower priority than the Swing 5 is to avoid fields exceeding 78 players later in the year, such as at the Travelers in June, when more winners will have become exempt. Based on projections, the Tour says that outside the top 50, an additional 70 unique players will play in at least one signature event this season.

Webb Simpson watches his shot from the 11th tee during the third round of the 2023 Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports)

The AT&T’s sponsor invites also are a hot topic of conversation among players. Sponsor invites were granted to four players. Three of the four exemptions to AT&T were handed out to members of the Tour’s independent Board of Directors – Peter Malnati, Adam Scott, Webb Simpson – as well as local product Maverick McNealy, who last week fulfilled his medical exemption.

“It seems like collusion, a political game that should never happen on Tour,” said one veteran player. “It’s very shady, if you ask me.”

Given that Malnati, Scott and Simpson are on the verge of being three of the six players to vote on the Tour’s deals with private equity groups and potentially Saudi Arabia’s PIF, it could be perceived as a kickback for their unpaid efforts on behalf of the Tour or even as a way of buying their votes.

Another veteran Tour winner said, “It doesn’t pass the smell test. The cool thing about sports is it used to be the outlet where everything was determined on the field or court. Golf has always been the ultimate meritocracy.”

Malnati, a one-time winner, currently ranks No. 245 in the world. He finished T-4 at the AT&T last year and has supported the event consistently and knows how to show his amateur partner a good time. Simpson, a former major winner, has slipped to No. 225 in the world and has resorted to playing a limited schedule in recent years to spend more time with his large family. He has played at Pebble in only two of the last 10 years.

Gary Woodland, who won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and is making a comeback from brain surgery last year, and Daniel Berger, a tournament winner at Pebble in 2021 who is making his own comeback after being sidelined for more than a year, would seem to have more box-office appeal and attract more attention but are among the players who won’t be teeing it up this week.

Tournaments are allowed to offer sponsor exemptions at their discretion – and they have run the gamut from the NFL’s Tony Romo to the LPGA’s Lexi Thompson in recent years – but those selections will be greeted with greater scrutiny given the heightened stakes. AT&T Pebble Beach tournament director Steve John didn’t respond to an email requesting an explanation for his tournament’s choices, but at least one player wasn’t interested in hearing his reasoning.

“Peter Malnati has zero business getting an invite into a signature event and Webb shouldn’t really either,” a veteran pro said. “It just seems very fishy.”

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