Money talks and the world’s top golfers are happy to listen

Lure of lucre above and beyond prize money attracts the biggest names to Abu Dhabi

Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson are being well paid to compete in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in the United Arab Emirates. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Isn’t all professional sport about filthy lucre? The measure of success is reflected in inflated bank balances, the bigger the better; and for those at the top of their game, it isn’t just about cashing in the prize money. It’s about cashing in on their image, of what they bring to the party.

Technically (apparently!) appearance money doesn't exist any longer on the PGA European Tour; but anyone scratching their heads and wondering how or why, say, world number one Dustin Johnson is playing in the desert this week in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA won't have to work their brain cells too hard to figure out the answer.

Although the actual tournament purse of €2.5 million places it at the mid-to-lower end of prize money (in contrast, the eight Rolex Series events on the European Tour, including the DDF Irish Open, have minimum purses of $7 million), Abu Dhabi features a stellar line-up headed by Johnson with a cast that also includes Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar.

Why? The answer comes down to the lure of money above and beyond prize money, and the assurance of being treated like princes.


It’s safe to say their collective presence in the desert is due to financial inducements; no, not “appearance” money (because that doesn’t exist, does it?), rather “promotional” contracts which require the player to perform duties to promote the tournament in whatever fashion is required.

It could be talking to corporate clients, or presenting the prize at a pro-am, or appearing in commercials . . . there is loose enough terminology about what the requirements are, but certainly whatever is involved can’t be considered loose change by any means.

Indeed, it is reckoned Johnson is on close to $1.5 million (before any prize money) for jettisoning the US Tour in favour of playing in Abu Dhabi. As the world number one, and the game’s dominant player, that’s the going rate to get the main man to tee it up in faraway climes.

McIlroy is reputed to be on over $1 million for his time. The fact is that the “promotional” money paid will be multiples of the tournament purse.

Of course, the passing on of filthy lucre to professional golfers is no new phenomenon. It happened in the past with the Irish Open no exception to the rules of engagement of the time as the likes of Greg Norman and John Daly – in their heyday – were paid to come and play in the tournament.

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For example, in playing the 1995 Murphy’s Irish Open at Mount Juliet, Norman – aka ‘The Great White Shark’ – was said to have pocketed as much as $300,000 in appearance fees.

That was a time when the title sponsors cunningly used a highly impressive and successful marketing campaign based around the Aussie to the extent that, on travelling from the airport to the Co Kilkenny venue and seeing the giant advertisements with his image adorning billboard after billboard, the then world number one wondered if he’d short-changed himself.

There is an acceptance, especially in developing markets, that "promotional" fees to the top players are the norm rather than the exception. Justin Rose was part of the marketing campaign for the Turkish Airlines Open (which he also happened to win) last season, and Sergio Garcia, as Masters champion, did the honours at the Hong Kong Open.

Anyway, the reality of this week's respective tournaments, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship on the European Tour and the Career Builders event on the PGA Tour stateside, is that the field enhanced by "promotional" money is the stronger of the two. There are 52 world ranking points to the winner in Abu Dhabi, 40 points to the winner in California. So using financial incentives as the power of attraction to boost the quality of the field does work.

And that their event is top-heavy with the world’s leading players is likely to have all those involved with the Abu Dhabi tournament – backed by one of the world’s leading banking corporations and supported by one of the world’s leading industrial aluminium producers – believe that every cent of their investment has been well spent.