To pay or not to pay. Not that the PGA Tour is even vaguely interested in incorporating appearance fees into its repertoire. On this Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., has been particularly clear.
For the record the circuit’s policy is: “Neither players nor other individuals acting on such players’ behalf shall solicit or accept any compensation, gratuity or other thing of value offered for the purpose of guaranteeing their appearance in any PGA Tour cosponsored tournament . . .”
But on a sleepy Wednesday equidistance between Masters Sunday and Players Thursday the philosophy, if not the practice, of appearance fees seems to be the subject du jour.
Perhaps it was Lee Westwood's cameo last week at the Indonesian Masters, an event which he won and was reportedly paid handsomely to attend. Or maybe it was a surprisingly weak field at the Texas Open. Whatever the impetuous, the pay-to-play concept has wedged itself back into the conversation this week.
It’s not often the Tour stakes out such a lofty spot in the moral high ground with immunity, but on this the suits seem to have it right.
For all those who cling to the notion that economic Darwinism should be allowed to run its course on Tour and that those who can afford to dole out six- and even seven-figure appearance fees should be allowed to do so might consider professional tennis as the ultimate cautionary tale.
“We don’t think it comports with the competitive integrity of the sport,” said Ty Votaw, the Tour’s executive vice president of communications and international affairs. “Look at what made it bad in tennis. The first time a player getting a fee misses a cut, legitimately just misses the cut, it will come into question.
“We don’t want there to be any perception that players are not giving it their best day in and day out.”
Besides, other than a handful of top players who would reap the financial windfall of appearance fees there are few in the game who support such a dramatic change in direction at the highest level.
Not most players, nor Tour administrators and certainly not many tournament directors.
Even a tournament director with a field that has historically struggled to attract top players seemed adverse to the idea when contacted this week.
“It’s a very slippery slope,” he said after a long pause. “You already have the haves and the have nots and you might widen the gap even more if we were to start allowing appearance fees.”
Even for tournaments with deep enough pockets to cut big checks for big names it is something of a “zero sum” game. With respect to the 287 or so other Tour players, for your average golf fan there are only 2 1/2 names that resonate – Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and, to a lesser but growing degree, Rory McIlroy.
The economic reality of that truth is those three aren’t going to be swayed by an appearance fee to show up in San Antonio or Madison, Miss., or any other Tour stop that shoulders on without the benefit of the game’s marquee.
That’s not to say, however, the system is perfect. Not long ago one tournament director suggested he would consider taking his cash to the European Tour – which allows appearance fees, like most of the world’s circuits – cutting his purse in half and using what remains to pay appearance fees.
In theory, said tournament director’s field would only improve, but at what cost? The loss of Tour status would be a hit and it seems unlikely the “big three” would suddenly add the event to their schedules.
There is also the elephant in the board room that suggests appearance fees, by any other name, are allowed on Tour. This week’s Zurich Classic, for example, has a number of “HelpPoint ambassadors” in the field, including world No. 2 Luke Donald, who played the New Orleans stop for the first time last year.
Whether Donald’s association with Zurich influenced his decision to play this week is debatable. Whether he violated the Tour’s policy on appearance fees is not.
“We feel like everybody complies with our regulations,” Votaw said flatly.
Perhaps, but the idea that there are “backdoor” appearance fees is a commonly held truth on Tour.
“It’s happened, I’ve seen it,” Robert Allenby said on Tuesday’s “Morning Drive.” “Where a bunch of the top players have gone to a special place to go play golf and then they go play the tournament. It doesn’t happen every week, but it has happened three or five times a year.”
But then the gray area between what is perceived and what is permitted is where the Tour has decided to draw the line, and for good reason. There may come a day when the circuit will need to consider appearance fees, but it’s not today.