A simmering talking point these days on the PGA Tour revolves around who gets to play in the $20 million Signature Events (and also, who doesn’t). Many players earned their way in during the 2023 season, and a handful have played their way into that slate of mega-money tournaments this year. But four spots in each Signature Event are given out via the sponsor of the tournament.
Considering the field sizes for these events — mostly 70 to 80 players — and the massive purses, earning a sponsor’s exemption feels a bit like a lottery ticket. It’s a tee time for two guaranteed rounds (and in some cases four guaranteed rounds). If it’s your week, you’re going to make a lot of money off that lottery ticket, and earn plenty of FedEx Cup points. Thus, it goes without saying that everyone on the outside looking in would love to receive a lottery ticket. And everyone who doesn’t is bound to apply some scrutiny to the decision.
Two weeks ago, at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the sponsor’s exemptions were dished out to Adam Scott, Webb Simpson, Peter Malnati and Maverick McNealy. It was a slightly criticized move, considering Scott, Simpson and Malnati are all sitting members on the PGA Tour’s 6-player Policy Board, a high-ranking position among the membership. But also because none of their names were Gary Woodland.
Woodland has returned to the PGA Tour this season following successful brain surgery in 2023, which he discussed in great detail last month during his season debut.
A lesion on his brain had riddled him with fear and anxiety, wrecking his appetite and energy levels. He relied on medication for awhile, still trying to compete on the PGA Tour, but then resorted to surgery in September. The Sony Open in January was his return, where he told reporters what is driving him back after his health scare.
“I want to prove to my kids nobody is going to tell you you can’t do anything,” Woodland said. “You can overcome tough, scary decisions in your life. Not everything is easy. This came out of nowhere for me, but I’m not going to let it stop me. I don’t want this to be a bump in the road for me. I want it to be a jump start in my career.”
Woodland opened his season with four straight 71s, which nets out to a perfect even par, but amounte to two missed cuts at the Sony and Farmers Insurance Open. During those weeks, he had Tour pros and broadcasters (See: Colt Knost) wondering if he might earn a sponsor’s exemption into the Pebble Pro-Am, given his inspiring pursuit, but also because the biggest moment of Woodland’s career came at Pebble Beach itself: his 2019 U.S. Open victory.
Ultimately, Pro-Am organizers went in a different direction — which its organizers are entitled to do — but whatever opportunity was missed that week has now been granted to Woodland via Tiger Woods. Woodland received a Friday evening exemption into next week’s Signature Event, the Genesis Invitational, which Woods hosts. Woods himself even required a sponsor’s exemption into the field, as Signature Event fields are filled mostly via previous season FedEx Cup rankings and recent performance on Tour.
Woods and Woodland will be joined by Adam Scott and Will Zalatoris as sponsor’s exemptions in the field, and while Woodland can thank Woods, he also should thank Justin Thomas. Thomas was originally slotted for that final exemption until his recent form has helped lock him into the top 30 in the OWGR. Any players who rank in the top 30 in the world are automatically qualified for Signature Events as well. Once it was made clear that Thomas would make the cut in Phoenix and maintain his top 30 status, his sponsor’s invite was redirected to Woodland. You will see him in LA. And good news for Woodland is a couple 71s at the testy Riviera Country Club is is much more likely to lead to that first made cut of 2024.