ATLANTA – To pluck a phrase from the modern lexicon, this week at East Lake is all about making it rain, and not just the steady drizzle that put a damper on the PGA Tour’s swansong on Friday.
In theory, players have 10 million reasons to take this week, and these playoffs, seriously. It's a financial reward that would be life changing for your average 9-to-5’er.
This week’s FedEx Cup champion will collect a $10 million bonus – which is actually $9 million in cash and another $1 million in deferred retirement benefits – in addition to their Tour Championship earnings, which in the case of Billy Horschel last year added up to an $11.44 million.
Not a bad gig if you can get it.
The powers that be at the PGA Tour have used the multi-million dollar carrot to purport the importance of the postseason and this week’s ATM Open, but then this is the same group that traded earnings as the game’s ultimate litmus test for points when they invented the playoffs.
The problem with using money as motivation for the game’s top stars is that golf, at least at the highest competitive levels, is a victim of its own success.
It was the point Rory McIlroy was trying to make this week when he was asked what impact the $10 million prize would have on him late Sunday if he found himself in contention.
The fallout from McIlroy’s comment, at least in the social media space, has been swift and severe; but in his defense, it’s an opinion he’s come by honestly and shares with many of his Tour frat brothers.
There is also something to be said for taking McIlroy’s words in their entirety and full context, which is not always the case in a sound-bite society.
“Luckily, that amount of money doesn't sort of mean much to me anymore," he said on Wednesday. "It will go in the bank and if I want to buy something nice, I will. It's nice to think that you could win $10 million this week, but that's not what excites me.”
“It excites me to play well and to try and win. And the FedEx Cup is one of the only things that I haven't put on my golf CV, and that would be more exciting to do than walk away with a check.”
While those living paycheck to paycheck may bristle, financial security came early for McIlroy and many modern professionals.
In just his fifth full year on Tour, he’s earned $28 million in prize money. In 2013, he signed a five-year deal with Nike that is reportedly worth between $100 million and $200 million. He also has lucrative endorsement deals with Omega and Bose and regularly collects six- and seven-figure appearance fees.
Moreover, McIlroy’s take isn't unique among the game’s best and brightest when it comes to the big bonus.
“I haven't thought a whole lot of how a little bit may be used in the near future, but I think the biggest thing is trying to cap off a great year so far,” Rickie Fowler said.
Henrik Stenson, who won the season-long race and $10 million jackpot in 2013, was also less interested in the payday than he was his performance.
“If you are thinking too much about the outcome and the money, that's going to be in your way,” Stenson said. “I am just going to go out and try my hardest and hopefully give myself a chance to make it two in three years. I'm sure we can figure out a way to spend a bit of money if we come to that point.”
Even Jason Day, who is notoriously frugal with his finances, didn’t put much thought into how the super-sized check would change his lifestyle.
“I might buy a few more V-neck [sweaters] from Target. That's usually what I do, right? I don't really spend money, mate,” said Day, who began the week perched atop the FedEx Cup point list.
Sergio Garcia spoke clearly through his actions this postseason when he skipped the first two FedEx stops to rest, a move that kept him from advancing to the Tour Championship.
McIlroy’s comments certainly qualify as clunky, which is surprising considering that the four-time major champion has proven himself particularly savvy when it comes to avoiding media miscues. But the only thing you need to know about the 26-year-old is that his current views on wealth have nothing to do with what was by any measure a salt-of-the-earth upbringing in a Belfast suburb.
McIlroy’s father, Gerry, worked three jobs, and his mother, Rosie, worked too to give young Rory a chance to pursue his golf dreams. Holywood Golf Club, where he learned to play the game, is squarely on the blue collar side of the country club scene.
McIlroy certainly could have chosen his words more carefully regarding the possible financial windfall that awaits on Sunday, but he couldn’t have been more honest or more correct.