The tour, you see, is merrily going about the business of choking the goose that lays the golden egg. The goose is squawking now for the first time in history. Purses have gotten so large, the cost of a tournament sponsorship is so huge, that several corporations have finally had to back out.
The tour couldnt possibly have continued as it did in the glory years of 1998, 99, 2000 when the economy was roaring along. The bubble had to burst. And when it finally did, when the economy finally got to the point of breaking, it was so predictable that problems would spring up all along the front lines. Now, of course, its going to take a whole cadre of creative geniuses to shore up the cracks.
The tour has been applying the squeeze for about 10 years now. In 1993, the total purses broke through the $50 million barrier for the first time. In 10 years, the tour has shoved the purses upwards to where they were just under $200 million last year.
This year, 61 players each earned $1 million or more and Tiger Woods earned almost $7 million. Thats not so out of line, you say, when compared with football, baseball or basketball.
But those are all team sports, meaning you theoretically must show up for every game. Baseball, for example, starts with spring training in February and runs though the World Series in October. You punch in and then you are on call for the duration, day-in and day-out, week-in and week-out, month-in and month-out.
Golfers are independent contractors, meaning each guy shows up when he feels like it. Tiger plays less than half the tournaments ' around 20. The average golfer plays ' oh, say 25. And the average salary was about $950,000.
Woods has caused the average to go up and up. He was the first to make $2 million, in his first full season on the tour in 1997. His $2 million season was more than the entire tour made in 1963. When he won nine times in 2000, he topped the $9 million mark, which would have been the tours purses in 72.
It isnt Tiger, though. His only crime has been to win too many tournaments. The tournaments themselves are obligated to raise the purses by so much each year or drop out, and so far each year the tournament would gulp and then pony up. This year ' finally ' there have been defections. A few have been forced to drop out, cut bait instead of fish, and the horizon suddenly doesnt look so bright for the tour.
Tiger, you see, is only going to play in a limited number of events. His number is reduced to the four majors and three World Championship of Golf events, the Players Championship and the Tour Championship, and normally the Mercedes Championship ' not this year because he is recovering from knee surgery. Hell play Arnies get-together at Bay Hill, Jacks at Memorial, the Byron Nelson, and one near his home in Orlando (Disney). Throw in the ones which are named for his personal sponsor ' the Buicks 'and you get to around 15 or 16. Throw in two or three more and thats his schedule.
The Milwaukee Open could have a $10 million purse and it wouldnt get Tiger again ' ergo the B.C. Open, Houston, John Deere or the Texas Open. But the rising waters float all the boats, and the purses that have hit stratospheric heights in one venue have affected tournaments all the way down the line. They may not have a snowballs chance in Orlando of ever getting Tiger, but Tigers enormous presence has hit them with the same force that it has hit all those fortunate venues.
An argument could be made, actually, that the bloated purses have caused a lot of the big-name players to be a lot more stingy with their appearances. After all, do you think a Phil Mickelson who has won, say, $3 million, would possibly pencil in a Pennsylvania Classic?
Twenty years ago, the size of the purse was hugely important and Mickelson would probably have been tempted to look closely at Pennsylvania. Nowdays, they are all big. It matters little HOW big. The top guys play their 20 tournaments, make their $2 mil, and go drink rum punch in their lawn chairs at home.
And I dont blame them. It isnt their fault that they arent playing the XYZ Open, even though they could make $500,000 if they entered and won. Theyll make the $500 though at their leisure, where they want to make it, and the rest of the tour goes begging for the top stars. What they dont make in purses, they will make in endorsements. Dont sweat it, they will easily make it.
Meanwhile, the tour keeps pushing. And theyve just about reached the top of the hill. If this purse thing clears the top and then starts rolling down the other side ' help! Players will have to play in a few more events, and the tour will have to swab its black eye.
Golf as a whole, however, has vastly overestimated itself. The number of $150-per-round courses is growing at an alarming rate. Drivers and irons are ridiculous, and so are balls. And we dont understand why kids havent picked up the game, despite all our good efforts at junior golf and instruction in the schools. Really, now. Just look in on the checkbook and youll see the reason.
Some day, though, golf will come back to reality. A round will once again cost $10 or less, as it does in so many places in Scotland. And maybe the tour will realize that you dont gouge the tournaments toward higher and higher payouts. Golf will again belong to the little guy, and this world will be a much more sane place.