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Examining the pay-for-play issue

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So much for all that huffing and puffing about Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson not adding new events to their schedules. Or half-events, as the case may be. With both missing the cut last Friday at The Greenbrier, the hidden-appearance-fee reverberations have lasted well into this week.

One published report has Woods hauling $1.8 million to show up in West Virginia. Mickelson supposedly got $1 million, so it’s fair to figure the 3-year-old tournament didn’t get its money’s worth. Of course, the paid-to-play talk had to get louder once the game’s two biggest needle-movers skipped town after 36 holes.

Just wondering: Are there even enough people within driving distance of The Greenbrier to justify $2.8 million as it relates to the box office? Some tournament hosts can blow their noses with a $100 bill. If money is no object and you’re looking for a better spot on the PGA Tour map, there are sillier things to do with your cash.

Never mind that appearance fees are either illegal or taboo on the Tour, depending on who’s getting paid, who’s doing the paying and how discreetly the transaction is made. This particular case would seem to make sense. When a U.S. player is paid to go overseas and compete against his own tour, however, he is weakening the product that made him rich to begin with. That’s not healthy.

Camp Ponte Vedra can’t do much to stop those excursions. Only top-tier players are compensated for appearing in international events – resistance from headquarters wouldn’t be good for business, either. The independent-contractor shingle goes a long way toward protecting a star’s best interests, and though everybody from Woods down needs a release from the Tour to play in a conflicting event, that process is a mere formality.

The reality? If you’re one of the world’s best golfers, there will be money on the side. A couple of years before the Doral Tour stop turned into a World Golf Championship, the game’s largest management agency worked a deal that had several of its players come to Miami early for a clinic. I remember Retief Goosen making $150,000 to hit a few-dozen golf balls on a Tuesday morning.

No big deal, but the arrangement did raise a few eyebrows, and the Tour tends to look the other way on such matters. “It’s not something I’ve ever heard discussed [in meetings],” says one veteran player. “The thinking is, if nobody has a problem with it, there’s no reason to [prevent] it.”

Some rules are best left unenforced. With The Greenbrier folks committing to the Tour through 2021 and looking for more than a glorified minor-league tournament, there’s no reason to oppose any proactive attempt to upgrade a field. We’ve got enough meaningless events as it is – and dozens upon dozens of faceless pros who have no bearing on the actual success or failure of the product.

Back in his prime, Woods would go overseas, pocket the check for a couple million and still break out the game face by Friday afternoon. Mickelson is more of a homebody, but when it comes to performance-driven alpha males, these two wouldn’t know how to dog it for the dough if they tried. To think that either wasn’t playing hard at The Greenbrier is simply blasphemous.

On the other hand, we’ve seen John Daly receive a fee to show up, then stink up the joint or walk off in surrender, his obligation to those who compensated him conveniently forgotten. There is an obvious downside to appearance fees. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need them, but with all those bloated purses has come a form of competitive stratification.

The rich get richer and don’t need to compete nearly as often, which is hardly a perfect world at all. In a star-driven enterprise such as pro golf, it is the chilly reality.