Lynch: PGA Tour stars appear to be gaming the system. Is it true? Doesn’t matter

The scorched-earth political strategist Lee Atwater has been dead for more than three decades, but one of his odious aphorisms has never been more alive: “Perception is reality.” One need only skim the scummy surface of social media to realize how many people require no evidence to support fiercely held convictions about the malfeasance of others. The prevalence of that sentiment in every realm of life means it’s unsurprising to see it bubble up in golf, but it does present yet another headache for the PGA Tour, since the problematic perception is emanating from its own board members.

There are numerous arguments why Webb Simpson warrants sponsor’s exemptions into tournaments for which he is not otherwise eligible, the latest of which he has received for next week’s Wells Fargo Championship. He’s a popular former major champion. He’s built sturdy relationships on a reputation for professionalism and keeping things moving on the golf course (okay, that’s only half true). He has been a diligent member of the Tour’s Policy Board as it tries to navigate shark-infested waters. He’s chosen well in the places where he has won (Harbor Town) and where he lives (Quail Hollow, the host venue for the Wells Fargo). You can see why he’d get a special invitation or two.

But four? And all for signature events, the most lucrative stops on Tour? That’s half of the eight starts Simpson has made in 2024. There have been 10 non-signature tournaments he chose not to play. Simpson doesn’t traffic much in profanity, so someone ought to explain to him the concept of taking the piss.

He isn’t the only player-director on the Policy Board whose schedule has been scrutinized. Adam Scott received free passes into three signature events this year. Two other player-directors each got one — Peter Malnati and Tiger Woods, who was ushered into the Genesis Invitational, where he was also the tournament host. So generously are golden tickets gifted to board members that one almost expects the panel’s chair, antediluvian attorney Ed Herlihy, to peg it in a signature event, too.

Every invitation extended to player-directors has merit and is defensible, for those who care to defend them. None of those players is acting unethically by requesting and accepting exemptions since regulations permit members to use an unlimited number of them. But the pattern of invitations for player-directors creates a lousy perception that board members are gaming the system for their own benefit. It doesn’t matter if it’s the reality. The mere impression of self-dealing is perilous for an organization already running on fumes when it comes to goodwill among the rank and file.

Sponsors who dispense these exemptions aren’t breaking rules either. In return for anteing up a small fortune, events ought to be given latitude in how they deploy their limited number of invitations, even if it leads to jarring parochialism. Witness Ricky Barnes getting into the 2023 WM Phoenix Open (then a signature tournament) for no apparent reason other than being considered a swell guy by the Thunderbirds who run things. But following applicable guidelines isn’t really enough these days. There are plenty of common practices at the Tour that are no longer fit for purpose. Common sense and awareness of optics need to apply too.

Rank and file players are seeing their opportunities dwindle, a trend likely to continue as the Tour product is further streamlined in the coming years. There will be fewer tournaments, fewer cards available, fewer chances to make a living. That’s already painfully apparent this season to card-holders who earned status but lack privilege or seniority. It adds insult to injury for them to see sponsor exemptions into the most sought-after tournaments repeatedly used to prop up players who are not sufficiently competitive, whose best days are in the rearview.

Sure, player-directors who express concerns about loose governance on the Tour’s board should be more conscious of their own conduct when it comes to accepting unearned perks, but the onus here is on the Tour’s management and Player Advisory Council to act. The circuit will never be the complete meritocracy it imagines itself to be, in which every player earns his seat at the feast. Exemptions aren’t going anywhere. Imagine Jay Monahan calling a sponsor to tell them that Tiger Woods can’t play their event, even if he says he wants to. But stricter limits are essential.

Unlimited invitations to regular Tour events are fine, but the fast lane into signature events needs to be closed after a couple trips. The elevated events simply count for too much — particularly FedEx Cup points, the most meaningful currency now in determining playing privileges. But go further. For every exemption into a lucrative signature stop, the recipient should be required to enter a regular event that they haven’t supported in recent years. Players who take more from the business ought to have no issue with giving more, since they are now league owners.

Position matters when it comes to how player-directors operate during their terms on the board. Being a nice guy isn’t enough to justify creating an untoward perception. And living at the host venue sure as hell isn’t either.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek