Richer Events Are Pricing Out Traditional PGA Tour Stops

September 30, 2015

Long term, the PGA Tour may have a problem.

Rory McIlroy summarized it with great candor before last week’s Tour Championship when asked about the $10 million bonus awarded to the FedEx Cup champion.

“Luckily, that amount of money doesn’t sort of mean much to me anymore,” McIlroy said.

And why would it in the wake of his reported $250 million Nike endorsement deal? What McIlroy meant, however, was that he plays more for trophies than for money, and his perspective illustrates how cash has its limits as a motivator.

Tiger Woods has won $110 million in his career and made much more than that in endorsements. Phil Mickelson has $77 million 
in earnings. Even seven-time winner Matt Kuchar has racked up 
$33 million.

Jordan Spieth won more than $22 million this year alone, a Tour record, when he capped off his fabulous season by winning the Tour Championship and the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus that came with it.

Here’s the problem: While the $10 million doesn’t necessarily fire up some players who already are wealthy beyond reason, that sum makes regular Tour stops with purses in the $5 to $7 million range seem insignificant. Those events already have an identity crisis because the FedEx Cup, the World Golf Championships, the Players and the majors are overshadowing them.

Here’s what the golf season looks like to a top-20 player:

  • Four major championships
  • Four World Golf Championships
  • Four FedEx Cup events
  • The Players
  • The Memorial Tournament and Arnold Palmer Invitational
  • The Hyundai Tournament of Champions

Congratulations, pro. That’s 16 tournaments, one more than the minimum 15 required to keep your Tour card. So, top players don’t have to do any community service or play any of the “lesser” Tour events — in other words, the rest of them — unless they want to.

If I was a tournament director in the “Others” category, I’d be worried. Money isn’t ruining pro golf, but it is changing it.

This bigger-is-better concept has upside but it also has minimized the Tour’s original product, much like how Diet Coke, while successful, stole customers from regular Coke.

Television calls the shots, of course, and it wants big-name players to tee it up. The Tour devised the WGCs, which are flashier and more lucrative than regular stops. Then came the FedEx Cup playoffs, flashier and more lucrative than the WGCs.

The Tour has done a nice job of finding sponsors to keep 100 or so events rolling on the PGA, Champions and tours. Once bigger events were born, though, formerly significant stops such as Colonial and Riviera became boutique events.

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Tiger Woods further fractured the Tour into two kinds of tournaments — those he played and those he didn’t. Events in the latter category had trouble finding and retaining sponsors. See The International, Booz Allen Classic, Greater Milwaukee Open and Bell South Classic, may they rest in peace.

The above-mentioned schedule is enough for a top player. Mix in a few “off-season annuities” such as Tiger’s Hero Challenge, plus one or two events in Asia and the Middle East for big appearance fees, and a top player can retire for the year fat and happy, figuratively speaking.

“The big events have been classified now,” says six-time Tour winner Hunter Mahan. “Before, they weren’t classified as big, they just were. Now they’re officially classified as big events — the WGCs, the FedEx Cup, the Players. And everything else falls under Other Events.”

The problem is, the “ordinary tournaments” are needed to create the stars who carry the super Tour. Spieth’s initial springboard onto the world scene was the Puerto Rico Open, played the same week the stars tee it up at Doral’s WGC event. Spieth finished second, won $308,000 and enough cred to land sponsors’ exemptions, of which he took advantage. A few months later he won the John Deere Classic to secure his spot in the big show. Without those two events, he might not have reached the heights — or the 2014 Masters — so quickly.

“It used to be, if somebody gave you a spot in a tournament when you were starting out on the Tour, you never missed that tournament,” says long-time Tour veteran Jerry Kelly. “That all changed with Tiger. Milwaukee [Greater Milwaukee Open] gave him his first start. Tiger said, ‘Hello, world,’ and he never saw Milwaukee again. That’s the kind of lack of respect I’m talking about.”

The PGA Tour is pushing for global reach (and that includes its Olympic golf initiative) because there are potential deep-pocketed sponsors overseas. It’s easy to imagine a few more events earning WGC designation — say, in Europe, Australia and the Middle East — and bingo, you’ve got a world circuit.

Such a tour would threaten to turn the remaining events into something that feels like the A global big-money tour sounds glam, but would it be good for golf in America? Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t sound like a great business model.

The Tour is aware of this. Eight players, including Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, competed in a 2012 exhibition in Turkey the same week as the They were granted releases on the condition that they play the within three years. Thus, Woods and McIlroy committed to this month’s event, although Woods dropped out after back surgery.

It’s good to know the tour still protects its most important tournaments — the week-to-week stops such as Phoenix, Memphis, Hartford, Innisbrook, Greensboro, Greenbrier and the rest. They are the foundation upon which the PGA Tour is built. They help develop stars, fans, loyalty and interest in the game. Without them, there is no tour.

The money? It’s great, absolutely. But as McIlroy pointed out, it’s not what really matters.