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Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the proposed Saudi-backed LIV golf tour that will feature World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman as commissioner is one simple fact: professional golfers play golf for money.
That – in theory – is the main difference between professional and amateur golfers, the ability to accept large amounts of money for playing the game at the highest level.
How much money, and who should be getting the lion’s share of that money, are the main thrusts of the proposed tour. If this all sounds familiar, well, there have been other proposals in the last few years attacking the PGA Tour’s status as the biggest, most lucrative, and the best golf tour in the world. And it all comes down to money.
What the Saudi tour proposes is something the PGA Tour does not do, a guarantee of money for top players. Some published reports say the new tour would guarantee as much as $30 million upfront for some of the biggest names in golf to play its events, half of which would apparently be in the United States.
The PGA Tour does not provide guaranteed money for its members, though fans would be foolish to think there aren’t ways around those rules. An above-board check for $20 million or $30 million at the start of the year to Jon Rahm or Dustin Johnson doesn’t happen, though. Players are compensated for their play. When a player doesn’t play well for a few years, say, Rickie Fowler, his earnings and his world ranking will plummet.
Sure, Fowler can still make money from endorsements and commercials, but he has earned less money for on-course performances. That leads to another question, which is just who is getting the big money in golf. Consider that world No. 1 Jon Rahm earned $7.7 million in the PGA Tour’s 2020-21 season, while Patrick Cantlay finished second on the money list for the season with $7.6 million. If golf was like other sports, something the Saudi golf tour basically proposes, the biggest stars would make the most money with guarantees.
The highest-paid baseball or football players don’t always have the best individual years, but are often guaranteed the most money for their past performances and their drawing power for fans. In golf, that would make Tiger Woods the highest-paid player despite the fact he hasn’t played any PGA Tour events this calendar year.
Bigger paychecks for bigger stars
The idea that the biggest stars aren’t always the best compensated, at least on the course, is something that the proposed rival tours for the PGA Tour have attacked in recent years. The PGA Tour has paid attention. If you don’t think so, just look at the Players Impact Program, which compensates 10 players through a complicated formula that eventually boils down to a player’s star power. The tour hands out that money from a $40 million pool, but doesn’t tell fans which players earned the money.
And look at the increase in The Players Championship purse to $20 million, $5 million more than the 2021 event. That means the winner will get $3.6 million. That’s another way to compensate the best players in the game, though there is nothing stopping the lowest-ranked golfer in The Players from having the week of his life and taking the first-place check. Bigger purses would surely reward the bigger stars, who after all are stars because of the way they play on a consistent basis.
Now Golfweek is reporting the PGA Tour will start a series of guaranteed-money events around the world, perhaps as early as 2023. Taking the ideas of your rival and making them your own is a winning strategy.
The proposed Saudi tour, which has hooked up with the Asian Tour for at least 10 events, may never get off the ground. We know of no players who have signed on with the new tour yet. Several top players like Rahm and Rory McIlroy have previously turned their back on other proposed tours, believing that staying with the PGA Tour and the European Tour is the right thing to do.
Team Europe’s Jon Rahm shakes hands with Team USA assistant captain Phil Mickelson after the Ryder Cup matches at the Whistling Straits Golf Course Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in Sheboygan, Wis. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Other players will not want to navigate the political waters and the potential backlash of signing with a tour backed by money that works its way back to the Saudi Arabia government. Which player wants to answer the question about allegations of human rights violations or the treatment of women in that country?
The PGA Tour has also suggested a ban from its events for any player who signs with a rival tour. Maybe that is important, or maybe it is something that melts away with a $30 million check.
So it is pretty simple. If you want to understand the new Saudi golf tour, just follow the money.
Larry Bohannan is The Desert Sun golf writer, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (760) 778-4633. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @larry_Bohannan. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Desert Sun.