The PGA Tour’s golden goose continues to cluck like crazy

Amid a global pandemic, has the PGA Tour’s travelling circus been tone deaf?

This weekend’s Tour Championship, the conclusion of the FedEx Cup play-off series, delivers a $15m (£11.2m) top prize from a total purse of $60m. File photograph: Getty Images

This weekend’s Tour Championship, the conclusion of the FedEx Cup play-off series, delivers a $15m (£11.2m) top prize from a total purse of $60m. File photograph: Getty Images

 

The PGA Tour can claim to have enjoyed the last laugh. Cynicism about the viability of a new normal in golf’s big time was plentiful even after the Charles Schwab Challenge got under way in mid-June. A plan to welcome spectators back within a month swiftly fell by the wayside and there were some coronavirus-related player decisions to raise eyebrows but, generally, the PGA Tour’s travelling circus has reached this weekend’s season-ending juncture unscathed. There is, in fact, cause to praise golf’s professional return on both sides of the Atlantic as a sporting success story.

If focus lands on the American element of this resumption, the explanation can be found in the strength of fields. There is also an unavoidable and stark economic reality surrounding the European Tour. Events worth €1m (£900,000) have become common in Europe at a time when the PGA Tour routinely bestows more than that on champions. The last-placed players – having made the cut – at the UK Championship earned €1,250.

This weekend, the PGA Tour’s muscle flex is akin to that of a Roman gladiator. The Tour Championship at East Lake, the conclusion of the FedEx Cup play-off series, delivers a $15m (£11.2m) top prize from a total purse of $60m. As the “winner” of the regular, pre-play-off season, Justin Thomas collected a $2m bonus. Thomas didn’t even have to play in the tournament backed by the sponsors of this rewards pool.

The sums are extraordinary when the abbreviated nature of this season is considered. To some, this was grotesque enough even before Covid-19 crippled global economies. Those who take a dim view of the relationship between golfers and money will be reaching for sick bags given the size of this season’s cheques. Thirtieth and final place at East Lake will collect $395,000. Amid a pandemic, is this tone deaf? Not according to Jon Rahm, with the world No 2 launching a firm defence of golf’s monetary connection.

“We can’t control what happens in the world,” the Spaniard said. “I certainly can’t control how much we play for. The truth is the PGA Tour and many players do an outstanding job with the platform that we have to help communities all around the country. We play 40-plus weeks a year, and each week we help a community.

“So, no, I don’t feel guilty. I have donated a lot throughout my four years on Tour to survivors of natural disasters, or sometimes different people might need help. I think that’s where the PGA Tour comes in with how much money we donated throughout the year thanks to PGA Tour events and how many communities we’ve been able to help. So I think that’s a bigger picture than just how much money one player gets.” Rahm did, however, acknowledge $15m could see his great-grandchildren through college. He is still only 25.

With all due respect to Harris English, when the world No 51 is shrugging off a pot of gold the picture is telling. “I really haven’t thought about that a whole lot,” the American said of $15m. “I’ve just been in the mindset of trying to accomplish my goals this year, trying to keep working up to the top, working up in the world ranking and trying to win golf tournaments.”

Major League Baseball became embroiled in a tawdry summer episode with players with a key element related to salaries. Golf had no equivalent, partly because players are all independent contractors. The PGA Tour has not pretended to be immune to the harsh realities of the past six months. The prolonged absence of galleries and corporate hospitality would bring further problems, albeit pro-ams – another money-spinner – are close to a return.

It is legitimate to ask how sustainable prize funds at their current levels are. The smashing of gambling barriers in the United States has at least delivered a timely opportunity. In the past month the PGA Tour has announced deals with four official betting operators. Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour’s commissioner, has also now confirmed a “super season” schedule for 2020-21 that includes 50 sponsored tournaments. If elite golf is due to hit the buffers, they are not yet in view.

The Tour Championship has a projected charitable impact of $3.5m. “The future of the PGA Tour is very bright,” insisted Monahan. Dollar signs make that assertion very difficult to argue against, incongruous though that seems. “I’m confident we can get back on to our normal growth pattern,” he added. Despite losing 30 per cent of competition in 2020, the golden goose continues to cluck like crazy.

Considering the unseemly wrangling around Lionel Messi, maybe sport at its loftiest peak will be untouched by wider hardships. Rory McIlroy has raised the not unreasonable point that golfers have to compete at a level where they win these vast sums as opposed to having them handed over.

Players of his status generally do not compete with money in mind – they have quite enough of it anyway – but the acceleration of wealth at the top echelon of the game is quite something. It is also all-consuming; the Ryder Cup, the supposed embodiment of golf in the raw, affords huge commercial spin-offs to competitors.

“Honestly, in my case, if I were to win, yeah, the money is great,” added Rahm of this weekend’s event. “But I think we’re all here to try to be the best. That is much more enticing than anything else.”

In proving money cannot buy you everything, Tiger Woods will be absent from East Lake having failed to qualify. McIlroy’s participation is in doubt following the birth of his first child. For Rahm, Dustin Johnson and the others in pursuit, $15m has arguably never had such little material significance. Which rather tells a story. - Guardian

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