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Webb Simpson’s RBC exemption highlights how the PGA Tour’s sponsor invite conundrum is alive and well

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Steve Wilmot is working the RBC Heritage for the 38th straight year. Long enough, in fact, that his first tournament was in 1987, when Davis Love III won for the first time.

“Davis has gone on to win this event five times and make it all the way to the Hall of Fame and I’m still sitting here in this double-wide,” said Wilmot, president and tournament director of the RBC Heritage, with a wide smile.

But in all of his years in his post, he’s never received so many requests from players and agents seeking a sponsor’s invite. As if further proof was necessary, he pulled from his desk a spreadsheet consisting of a handful of pages stapled together where he tracked the performance of all the players who had texted, emailed, and phoned hoping to get into the Heritage now that it is a $20 million Signature event with a limited field, no cut (guaranteed payday) and jacked up FedEx Cup points.

Last year, as a designated event, the RBC Heritage field peaked at 150, an increase from 132 and an all-time high. This year, it’s limited to 70 (down to 69 with Viktor Hovland withdrawing over the weekend) and Wilmot’s sponsor invites were chopped in half from eight down to four. He whittled the potential candidates down to 40, to 30 and then 20, personally calling the players to break the bad news.

But he held off on making any announcements about the four Willy Wonka golden ticket winners to play Harbour Town Golf Links this week. The Official World Golf Ranking didn’t update until midnight after the Masters, which impacted some of his decisions, so he waited until Monday morning to announce the four sponsor invites, the latest he’s ever done that.

The four lucky players are Gary Woodland, the 2019 U.S. Open winner who is a sentimental pick after returning from brain surgery last fall; Kevin Kisner, a popular player who once lost the tournament in a playoff and is a South Carolina resident; Shane Lowry, the 2019 British Open champion who has three top-10s in his last five years at this event and seems poised to win the title some day; and Webb Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion, 2018 Players Championship winner, the 2021 RBC Heritage champion, as well as an ambassador with RBC for four years.

Kisner received an exemption into a Signature event for the first time while Lowry, who is an ambassador for MasterCard, the presenting sponsor of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, got his second as did Woodland (Genesis Invitational). For Simpson, it is his third and while it isn’t official, you can connect the dots that Simpson, who lives along Quail Hollow Golf Club and is the unofficial host of the Wells Fargo Championship (not to mention that he has the company’s logo on the belly of his golf bag) will receive a fourth exemption next month. That’s the max allowed for a player during a given season.

Simpson’s exemptions have received increased scrutiny (as did an exemption to Peter Malnati at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am before he won and became exempt into the rest of the Signature events this season – and to a lesser extent Adam Scott) because all three are player directors on the Tour Policy Board. In February, several players — although none willing to put their name to their words — expressed their disappointment, using words like “fishy” and “shady,” to describe their displeasure with the invites  and suggested the choices either were payback for their unpaid board work or even worse, a payoff for their future vote.

The optics of handing invites to three policy board members at Pebble may have raised some eyebrows in the locker room but the implication that the suits in Ponte Vedra are pulling the strings on those invites is just the latest baseless claim spouted by LIV enthusiasts.

Qualifying for Signature events is meant to be a meritocracy, something LIV could still learn from, but the Tour left a few ways to let players who haven’t played up to their usual high standard have a back door so they still can participate. But with the purse at Signature events being more than double that of the regular events and guaranteeing both points and a payday, it’s a huge opportunity that can give a player a leg up to qualify for future Signature events, to keep one’s card and, potentially, qualify for the Signature events next season. Simpson, for one, can see from a player’s perspective how entry into the Signature events should be more of a meritocracy.

“I totally can see it and I don’t disagree,” said Simpson, who is making his 15th start at the RBC Heritage this week. “I’m in a tough place because I’m on the Board and the Signature events concept was crafted at the Board level. If Adam (Scott) gets four and I get four, sure, I know people are going to be saying things.

“I told another player this year who had an issue with board members getting spots. I said, ‘I know it looks political. I would argue it’s not political at all.’ The relationships I built, I built over a long period of time. I told this player that if we got something wrong,  if we missed something, we want to learn from it. I gladly accept people’s criticism and feedback. I hope I’m not in this position again. It’s a tough place to be knowing that some players have an issue with it.”

Reigning British Open champion Brian Harman sees both sides of a complicated issue.

“It’s a tricky one. I mean, in the pure meritocracy of it, no. But we’re asking sponsors to pony up extra money for these events, and so I don’t see how you can ask them to also not have sponsor exemptions,” Harman said. “So, I hear arguments for both sides and I understand both sides.”

Wilmot lamented having to call past RBC champs Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, C.T. Pan, Stewart Cink and Luke Donald and letting them know there was no room at the Inn for them this year. Mark Hubbard, No. 49 in the FedEx Cup standings, and Nicolai Hojgaard, a European Ryder Cupper who held the Masters lead on Saturday and ranks right behind him at No. 50 in the standings, also were left on the outside looking in.

Sponsor invites likely won’t be going away any time soon. Perhaps they should be reduced, or the Tour could add some language that the maximum number of invites a player receives can’t be reached until the final Signature event. Simpson noted that the Tour should build flexibility into the system for Tiger Woods, who has liftted the Tour in immeasurable ways, to allow him into any field he wants to play given what he’s done historically and still continues to do every time he tees it up. No one will argue with the boost Woods would instantly bring to a Signature event, but he’s probably the single figure who can elevate a field. And there’s no denying that there are intangibles some players bring that don’t show up in the stat sheets.

Wilmot picked Kisner, a former Tour policy board member, for all the little things he does throughout the year, including appearances at media day and at a tournament for sponsors as well as social media requests while Simpson went above and beyond the call of duty when he was reigning champion during the COVID year. Sometimes being a model citizen has its benefits.

“We remember these sorts of things,” Wilmot said.

Simpson is thankful for the opportunity to compete against the best in the world this week. He played himself into a late third-round tee time at the Valero Texas Open two weeks again and was more nervous than he’d been in a long time.

“I showed myself without realizing it how much I love the game still and competing,” he said. “It gave me a kick-start to want to be there more.”

And while Simpson understands how some players feel about him getting a third sponsor invite this week, he is unapologetic. Asked if he would consider passing up a fourth sponsor invite at the Wells Fargo Championship, his hometown event in May, to appease the faction of the Tour that thinks he’s received special treatment, Simpson didn’t waver. “No way,” he said. “I’m taking it. The rules are written as they are and I’m going to take every opportunity I can to play against the best players.”

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