This week the world's best golfers (minus Tiger Woods) have gathered at Congressional Country Club's Blue Course to play the 111th U.S. Open. They'll all be vying for the chance to join one of the sports world's most exclusive clubs: a major championship winner. Prestige is a big factor: Tom Watson called the US Open "the tournament I wanted to win most. ” He won it once, in 1982. Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus share the record with four wins a piece (Tiger has won three in his career).
But prestige is only part of it. The U.S. Open, staged by the United States Golf Association, is one of the richest events in professional golf, with a total purse of $7.5 million in 2010. Last year's winner, Graeme McDowell, earned $1.35 million. (Purse money for 2011 was to be announced after the Friday cuts.) The Masters this year had a purse of $8 million. The PGA Championship is expected to match that number. Because of the currency exchange, the British Open has had slightly smaller prize money in recent years.
Though the majors have all the glamour, they are not the richest events in professional golf. On the PGA Tour, there are eight events with equal or bigger purses. The biggest money on the Tour? Its own signature event, the PLAYERS Championship, held every year in May.
The PLAYERS, which started in 1974, was the brainchild of then-Tour commissioner Deane Beman, who thought the Tour needed its own championship. Now known as the "fifth major,” the PLAYERS moved to Pete Dye's iconic Sawgrass Stadium course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in 1982. The total purse that year: $500,000.
Next up on the list are the World Golf Championships, which unite pro golf tours from Europe, Japan, Asia, Australia, Africa and the U.S. The three WGC events that take place in the U.S. – the Accenture Match Play, the Cadillac Championship and the Bridgestone Invitational – count as official money events on the PGA Tour (The fourth, HSBC Champions in China, is not official money but does count as a "win.") Those three events have purses of $8.5 million each. February's Accenture event was won by Luke Donald and March's Cadillac Championship was won by Nick Watney. Each player won $1.4 million. The Bridgestone tournament will be held in August at Firestone Country Club.
Next on the money list are the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs, which were introduced in 2007 to help boost the fall portion of the PGA Tour season, which had suffered from competition with the NFL and late-season baseball. The FedEx Cup is a four-tournament playoff system in which players accumulate points (similar to NASCAR) that go toward determining the winner of the FedEx Cup. Those four tournaments – the Barclays, the Deutsche Bank Championship, the BMW Championship and the TOUR Championship – all have purses of $8 million, equal to major championship money. In an interesting twist last year, Jim Furyk was disqualified from the Barclays (the first event) after missing the pro-am event, but went on to win the TOUR Championship event and the FedEx Cup anyway.
So where does the money come from? The PGA Tour has a unique business model. The purse money comes from two sources. Around 60 percent of the total comes from the Tour's television rights deal. (The Tour's current six-year contract with CBS, NBC and the Golf Channel is worth a reported $28 billion. The CBS and NBC contracts are up for renewal after the 2012 season. The Golf Channel contract runs through 2021.) The tournament sponsor is responsible for the remaining 40 percent of purse money. Title sponsors pay around $8 million a year for events that are televised on CBS and NBC. The TV networks get a pretty good deal: the Tour sells between 65 percent and 75 percent of the TV advertising to their sponsors. The networks have to make up for whatever remains.
Purses have grown exponentially in the last four decades. In 1970 the total purse for 55 PGA Tour events was $5.5 million. By 1990, that figure had risen to $46.3 million for 44 events. In 2000, toward the beginning of the Tiger Woods era, the total purse for 49 events was $164.4 million. In 2011, 45 events will have a total purse of $275.5 million. (The PGA Tour also has a major philanthropic bent: the Tour has raised $1.6 billion in charity since its founding in 1968. It gave away $120 million last year.)
That purse growth has pushed some of the Tour's regular events into the big money category. The Northern Trust Open, Wells Fargo Championship and the HP Byron Nelson Championship all have total prize money of $6.5 million and winner's checks of $1.2 million.
Given their druthers, most professional golfers would rather win a major than any other event. This week, one golfer will emerge and have his name forever etched on the US Open trophy. Congressional is a fitting place for such prestige – its founding foursome was comprised of presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge. But a professional golfer can make a great living on the other events as well. Just ask Kenny Perry (number eight on the all-time money-winning list with $32 million in career earnings) and Steve Stricker (number eleven with $29 million), neither of whom has ever won a major championship. But both of them have made a great living on the PGA Tour.
The top five: