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Pandora's Box

There was a lot of re-shuffling in the world rankings this past week, especially in the top 10. Even though it is still January, many of the world’s best players – including all four of last year’s major champions – were teeing it up.

There was just one problem: Not one of them was playing on the PGA Tour.

They had all deserted the California desert to play in the desert thousands of miles away in Abu Dhabi. Rather than make a short drive from San Diego to Palm Springs to play in a tournament he had won twice in the past, Phil Mickelson flew halfway around the world. Then he flew back to play at home this week in San Diego.

Was Mickelson drawn by the quality of the golf course? No. The course where the Abu Dhabi event was played is strikingly ordinary. It was blistered by Martin Kaymer, who shot 24 under par to win going away and it may not be used again next year. Was it the purse? Did the oil-rich sheiks put up so much prize money to make it impossible to say no to their event? Again, no. In fact, Kaymer’s first prize take of a little more than 333,000 euros was less than half of what Jhonattan Vegas received for winning the Hope. Total purse: $2.2 million. Total purse at the Hope: $5 million.

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson made a run for the (appearance fee) money last week at Abu Dhabi. (Getty Images)
The answer is much simpler than that: guaranteed appearance money. When Mickelson or Tiger Woods or any star plays overseas – other than in the British Open – it is all about being shown the money in advance. Mickelson’s going rate to play overseas is reportedly in the $1 million range, a nice week’s work if you can get it although it is dwarfed by Woods who in the past has been paid as much as $3 million just for walking on the first tee in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Players not quite as luminous as the current world No. 3 (Woods) and world No. 6 (Mickelson) can get well into six figures to play overseas. The going rate for a non-Woods/Mickelson major champion is usually in the $200,000 to $400,000 range – higher if a Euro Tour player is in his home country. There are no FedEx points involved but the money spends just the same.

All of which has created a serious problem for the PGA Tour. For years, the Tour has been golf’s lone holdout against the ever-increasing wave of guaranteed money. The Tour has even stymied backdoor attempts to pay players appearance money.

A few years ago, a sponsor for a big Tour event began offering players big bucks to play in a Monday outing the week of its event. Technically, the players weren’t being paid to play in the tournament but in the outing. When the Tour got wind of what was going on it put a stop to the outings, which was both admirable and the right thing to do.

Appearance fees are a pox in sports. They have virtually killed tennis in this country the last 25 years. Once upon a time there were tennis tournaments played in the U.S. almost year-round much the way the PGA Tour operates now almost all year. Then, promoters overseas began to pay players – even though it was against the rules – to play in their events. All of a sudden the tournaments in the U.S. went from having John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors as their top seeds to John Sadri and Jimmy Arias.

You can imagine what that did for ticket sales and sponsorship.

Golf isn’t going to go down the drain the way tennis did, especially as long as Commissioner Tim Finchem holds the line against appearance fees. They are a Pandora’s Box. Once you open it too wide you will have tournaments bidding for players and stars refusing to show up unless there’s appearance money on the table. You also might have another issue that seriously damaged tennis: tanking. Often players with a check already in their pockets played half-heartedly in the first or second round so they could get on a plane and go home. If a player has $200,000 in his pocket already and he’s on the cut line Friday, why should he grind to play early Saturday morning?

Sadly, because no one acted sooner, appearance fees are now an accepted part of the golf culture. One thing the Tour could do is this: Insist that if an event pays appearance fees it may not give out world rankings points. By definition, an event that pays individuals regardless of performance is an exhibition. At the very least, players whose appearance fees are often based on their world ranking might think twice before getting on the plane.

A year ago there were 35 PGA Tour events that went head-to-head with European Tour events. In 29, the PGA Tour had more ranked players (and thus, more ranking points available) than the European Tour event. In all likelihood those numbers will come down slightly for the PGA Tour this year.

To be fair, one thing Woods has always done is give people their money’s worth when playing for a guarantee. Most golfers will do that. But the more you pay people in advance, the more you risk having them mail in a performance if they aren’t feeling 100 percent.

Last year, after Woods’s fall from grace, Finchem asked him – in return for the unwavering support he gave him – to please start committing to tournaments earlier than the Friday beforehand (which is the deadline) so the events he was playing in could promote his presence earlier. Woods did do that, at least for a while.

As of this moment, he’s committed to two events in 2011: San Diego, which he committed to last Wednesday and next month’s Dubai Desert Classic, which he committed to last August. Why did Woods, always so reticent about revealing anything to anyone a minute sooner than need-be, commit to a tournament almost seven months in advance?

They showed him the money. Lots of it.