Rory McIlroy reveals surprising PGA Tour opinion

On Friday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Rory McIlroy perhaps invited a future brouhaha with his answer to a question on whether the fields at Signature Events should have more players.

Rory McIlroy - Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard
Rory McIlroy - Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard / Cliff Hawkins/GettyImages

“I'm all for making it more cutthroat, more competitive,” he said. “Probably won't be very popular for saying this, but I'm all for less players and less TOUR cards, and the best of the best.”

Eeek! Is this another monkey wrench thrown into the PGA Tour motor? Or is it something that’s routinely discussed? Or has he, gulp, been talking to Greg Norman? Or was he just having a bad day?

We don’t know. What we do know is that the number of players who are guaranteed slots in PGA Tour events has changed over time.

Before 1983, the PGA Tour had the top 60 players who were exempt for the next season. The top 60 was based on the money list. Everyone else had to Monday qualify for tournaments or be chosen as a sponsor’s exemption or be a past champion or be included in some other category that the Tour recognized.

Those routes still exist today, but the number changed. The old exemption categories beyond the top 60 are probably in a file somewhere at the PGA Tour. Now, today’s exemptions are in the PGA Tour handbook. Since fields were much larger than 60 before 1983, there had to be methods for deciding who got in and who didn’t, just as there are orders of priority today.

Mike Purkey, in an article for in 2019, retraced the path to the all-exempt tour which was proposed and supported by Gary McCord in 1982. His idea was that the top 125 players on the money list should be exempt. A lot of golfers agreed with him. That top 125 number still exists today.  However, it has had some tweaks. 

The top 70 in FedEx points are now guaranteed a spot in tournaments for the next year and only the top 50 can automatically get into the Signature Events, like this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The top 125 are next to be allowed to play each week, and really, it comes down to the same thing as the top 125 exemption used to be. But there are categories listed in a special order so that all PGA Tour or Korn Ferry or whatever tour players can see what’s necessary to gain entry.

Typical tournaments have 144 to 156 players, depending on daylight.  A few tournaments are “invitationals” that have less than 144 or 156 players. The Charles Schwab Challenge is one with a limited field size. Before this season, The Memorial and Genesis Invitational were smaller fields, usually in the 120-125 range. At every other event, it’s as many as they can accommodate.

Now there are Signature Events topping out at the top 50 plus the Next 10 and the AON Swing 5, plus sponsor exemptions.  

No matter the numbers, there is still a whole list of criteria for who can play in a PGA Tour event.

It has an order. It includes winners of recent PGA Tour events, winners of majors for the length of time of the particular major’s exemption (typically five years), past champions, players in the top 70, players in the top 125, players in 126-150, medical exemptions and so on.  It’s a shopping list to determine who gets in ahead of whom.  Like a Southwest plane at the airport, you get a number, and that’s when you can get on.

That’s how players who have not been playing well recently get into events. There are even categories like Life Members ( Davis Love III, Rory McIlroy, Hale Irwin, even Jack Nicklaus, for instance), career money, Korn Ferry players, reorder of Korn Ferry players, and so forth.   

The so forth encompasses 22 pages of categories and the order of those categories for players who want to enter a PGA Tour event. It’s all contained in the current PGA Tour Handbook.  

So now, the question becomes, is there a faction of PGA Tour players that wants the PGA Tour to be shrunk down to 70 players each week? 

There may be some in favor of fewer cards, but if it affected the number of pro-am spots and charity monies raised by each tournament, there would be serious complaints. If for no other reason than that, it’s unlikely that the PGA Tour players will be victims of 'honey I shrunk professional golf.'  

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In fact, if there was more daylight, if there was a tournament played in Fairbanks, Alaska, in June with 24 hours of light, there would likely be 300 players in the field.