Lynch: Signature events are trying to engineer outcomes that the PGA Tour’s stars can’t guarantee. It’s time for tweaks

The ambition that underpins the PGA Tour’s signature events is supposed to be apparent at the glamorous end of the leaderboard – popular stars locked in thrilling battles – but the shortcomings undermining these tournaments is evident at the other end of scoring at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Fridays on Tour are about who gets sent home; Friday at Bay Hill is about how many go home, or more accurately, how few.

Just 69 competitors started the week, and deep in the second round 61 of them were inside the cut, which covers the top 50, ties, and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead. Bay Hill is typically among the most demanding courses on Tour, so it was always unlikely that anyone would stretch a lead sufficiently to render the 10-shot rule irrelevant. Which means everyone who misses the cut might be able to share one of the tournament’s courtesy Cadillac SUVs to the airport. Granted, a decent percentage of starters will be cut at day’s end, but this is an unnecessary diversion.

While far short of a constitutional crisis for King Jay, quibbles about the cut speak to a broader dilemma with how the signature events are structured and marketed. Tournaments billed as all-star showcases are an automatic loss in the eyes of many if those all-stars don’t show up, which for the most part they haven’t in 2024. Since individual form is beyond the control of Commissioner Monahan, he might consider the words of business theorist W. Edwards Deming: “Eighty-five percent of the reasons for failure are deficiencies in the systems and processes rather than the employee.”

And signature events rely on a formula designed to artificially engineer outcomes that simply cannot be guaranteed.

Winners of signature tournaments this season are a worthy bunch, albeit not barn-burner personalities: Chris Kirk, Wyndham Clark and Hideki Matsuyama (the latter a superstar on distant shores, but beyond a language barrier for a U.S. audience). That list has been unfavorably compared with champions from elevated events in ’23, guys like Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler and Viktor Hovland. It’s convenient cherry-picking. Last year’s winners also included lower-wattage players like Kurt Kitayama, Lucas Glover and Clark (before he was a major champion). What’s different is that the leading men won early last year and established a narrative that signature events were delivering on their intent, while the supporting cast is stealing scenes this year and fueling a narrative that the Tour has lost its luster.

Building tournaments around Goliaths while trying to exclude most of the Davids isn’t indefensible, but it does have consequences, because every little reduction in competitiveness dilutes what makes things compelling for fans. At 9:30 a.m. on the morning of the second round, the practice range on Tour is usually a hive of comings and goings, pure tournament theater. Friday morning at Bay Hill, there were six players preparing for their rounds. Spectators in the stands behind them must have felt like they came for a feast but found a famine. One metric that matters for fans can’t actually be quantified: the vibe. You know it when you feel it, you know when you’re not feeling it. And not many are feeling it this week, in part because of the size of the field.

The field might be nominally stronger in that a greater percentage is made up of the Tour’s best players, but there’s simply less activity around the grounds, less action to follow, less spectacle to absorb. Just less, period. A tee sheet of 69 does no favors for the tournament, for fans or for the PGA Tour. If the old standard for the invitationals on the schedule (120) is thought too many, then why not 100? And if there’s no appetite to spread the purse among that many – which is the real reason for small, lucrative events – then dispense with the customary formula for distributing the prize fund and pay less for mediocre finishes. This ain’t LIV Golf.

With the exception of Tiger Woods, golf has never been a sport in which the top dog leaves with the trophy most times he competes. The loss percentage for even the best is way higher than other major sports. The signature events are an attempt to strengthen the Tour’s product by helping the VIPs get more Ws. What we are seeing so far in ’24 is that desired outcomes can’t be made to order, that in the pursuit of robust ratings, fan engagement and player preferences, we are instead sacrificing potential Cinderella stories and the vibrant bustle of tournament week for paying spectators. One cannot predetermine something that is inherently capricious: elite professional golf.

The Tour’s top stars have spent two years telling us they deserve greater rewards and the sport’s economy has been distorted to grant that request. Surely it’s not too much to ask that they play better, and play better against a few more guys.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek