JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Ernie Els certainly isn’t the first person to chase appearance money overseas, a practice that has been going on before he was born. He’s just given it the best definition.
It was toward the end of the 2007 season when Els had signed a three-year deal to play the Singapore Open, which kept him from a shot at the Order of Merit because Europe moved its season-ending Volvo Masters to the same date.
“How can I say it?” Els said. “The end of the year, you’ve got the wheelbarrow out, too. You want to cash in a little bit.”
Tiger Woods has the biggest wheelbarrow of all, pulling in $3 million from Australia, Japan and Dubai in recent years.
Lee Westwood rose to No. 1 last week by winning the Indonesian Masters, and he wasn’t there strictly for the scenery. Westwood, Els, Ian Poulter and Dustin Johnson are among those playing in South Korea this week.
There are no such wheelbarrows in America. It’s not called appearance money, anyway.
But it is naive to think that some players are not being compensated for playing in certain PGA Tour events, mostly through permissible and clever ways for a tournament sponsor to enhance its event.
“America is doing what we’ve done for 20 years, and there’s nothing wrong with it,” said Chubby Chandler of British-based International Sports Management, whose list of clients includes Els, Westwood, Rory McIlroy and two of the last three major champions in Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
“Tournaments have to get players to commit early,” Chandler said. “You can’t sell tournaments on the hope a bunch of guys might enter on Friday night. It’s just a way of getting players there. And they have to do something for it.”
The Zurich Classic this week in New Orleans has one of its strongest fields in five years, helped by a series of “ambassadors” who have a relationship with the global insurance provider and are taking part in a charity campaign that goes beyond the tournament. Ben Crane and Justin Rose wear the Zurich logo. The others who are involved in the yearlong campaign are Camilo Villegas, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell and Rickie Fowler.
Of those four, only McDowell has played New Orleans previously, and that was five years ago.
It’s a smart way to do business, because tournaments compete with each other as fiercely as players do on the course. It’s one thing to sign up as a title sponsor, even more beneficial for a company to pay a little more to align itself with quality players.
“Once you got corporate America involved … look at any sport,” Curtis Strange said. “It’s important to have a good field for your sponsors. It’s important to promote your event for TV, which promotes your product.”
The appearance of pay-for-play used to follow Woods because of his endorsement contracts with title sponsors. He had Buick on his bag for a decade and never missed the Buick Invitational. He played the Buick Open nine times and the Buick Classic three times. He also had deals with Accenture (Match Play) and American Express (World Golf Championship).
Woods once said it was never in his contract to play a Buick event. Maybe not, but it sure made good business sense. Odds are he would have been back to the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am had that endorsement deal not gone away.
The Royal Bank of Canada has made a big push into golf in recent years, not only as title sponsor of the Canadian Open but through endorsements with Anthony Kim, Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk and Els. All of them can expect to be in Canada the week after the British Open.
“It’s pretty obvious when you see a player wearing the logo of a company that is title sponsor of an event,” said Steve Timms, tournament director of Shell’s Houston Open. “If it’s a jump ball, he’s going to play. How could you try to prohibit that? That flies in the face of keeping a player from seeking endorsement money.”
Phil Mickelson is a regular at the Scottish Open and Singapore Open, both sponsored by Barclays, the name he wears on his shirt. Most agents point to Davis Love III always going to Hartford when the tournament – and Love – were sponsored by Canon.
But it goes beyond endorsements.
The PGA Tour had to tighten its regulations in 2004 when Ford, the title sponsor of Doral, paid up to $600,000 for four elite players to take part in a pro-am with Ford dealers. Adding to the embarrassment was Golf World magazine obtaining a letter from IMG that offered a menu of players – and how much they cost – in exchange for those players looking favorably upon playing the tournament.
There was some concern at PGA Tour headquarters a few years later when more tournaments began paying for certain players to show up at a cocktail party or dinner during the tournament.
One agent, speaking on condition of anonymity so players or tournaments couldn’t be implicated, said one of his clients recently was paid to appear at one tournament, provided he attend a dinner party the sponsor held at another PGA Tour event four months later.
By any definition, that’s appearance money.
Appearance money in Asia and other countries is not a matter of showing up and having six figures deposited in the bank. As one player said of his experience, “It’s more than a cocktail party. It’s dinner and a cocktail party, a tent visit, shaking hands with the right people. You’re there to enhance the tournament. It’s a full week commitment.”
Poulter sent out a tweet of himself going to a sponsor dinner in South Korea. Woods was at a gala dinner in Melbourne last November, and the year before, at the Australian Masters, where he met with a group of sponsors after his second round.
That’s not much different from what happens in America.
No one talks about it publicly because it’s virtually impossible to trace. A player could always say he planned to play a certain tournament, anyway – and isn’t that what the PGA Tour wants?