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'The top guys don't get enough'

Upstart golf leagues give top PGA Tour pros an invaluable commodity: leverage

November 03, 2021
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RIVIERA MAYA, Mexico — Greg Norman is fronting a group that will pump money into the Asian Tour, but its eventual goal is to start a new tour that will compete with the PGA Tour, and it’s complicated because it’s Saudi money, and there’s also another upstart tour without Saudi money, but its backers want to work with the PGA Tour rather than overtake it.

Got all that?

Yes, if one shadowy challenger to the establishment wasn’t enough, there are two. Last week, Greg Norman was officially named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, a Saudi Arabian-backed organization that will invest $200 million and host 10 events on the Asian Tour beginning next year. Some of that money will go toward prize money, but perhaps even more will go towards appearance fees, which are not permitted on the PGA Tour.

Not wanting to cede the spotlight, Andrew Gardiner outlined to ESPN his vision for the Premier Golf League, a separate group also looking to change the dynamics in men’s professional golf. A main difference between his organization and Norman’s, as cheekily referenced above, is that Gardiner’s vision is for the PGL to host 18 events that would exist under the PGA Tour umbrella, rather than seek to overtake it. The events would reportedly each have $20 million purses—which equals the new purse for the Players Championship, the highest on the PGA Tour schedule this year—and, crucially, pay the last-place finisher $400,000.

The common denominator in both proposals is a white whale tour players have coveted for decades: guaranteed money. It’s the reason these proposals remain alive despite the PGA Tour’s repeated attempts to squash them, and at the heart of a debate that seemingly is only getting more heated.

Professional golf is perhaps the most meritocratic of professional sports, at least in terms of money doled out by the league itself. How much a player makes per week is a direct result of his on-course performance. It’s been that way for decades and it’s part of the game’s appeal; every man is equal on the first tee Thursday morning.

Contrast the model with team sports, where a player signs a contract to play for a certain amount of money. In the NBA and MLB, these contracts are mostly guaranteed regardless of performance or injury status. If James Harden has a terrible season, he still makes the $40 million he was promised. It’s slightly different in football, where teams are rather stingy with their guarantees to protect against injury risk. But players fight for every dollar of guaranteed money they can get, and the best ones get enough to take care of multiple generations.

And yet in golf, 82-time PGA Tour winner Tiger Woods and one-time winner Joel Dahmen receive the same paycheck for finishing 10th. Which, according to Joel Dahmen, is patently ridiculous.

“On course, the top guys don’t get enough,” Dahmen said on Wednesday ahead of this week’s World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba. “Look, I’m not selling a single ticket. Maybe to a couple buddies, but I probably gave them free tickets anyway. I’m not bringing anyone here. I’m not adding a ton of value outside of maybe some Twitter stuff. The top guys who actually move the needle, who get people to watch, absolutely do not make enough.” Indeed, the player who received the most money directly from the PGA Tour—$7.6 million plus $15 million more for winning the FedEx Cup—during the 2020-21 season was Patrick Cantlay, a top-10 ranked player but not a global superstar.

It’s a point that Norman himself hammered home in an interview with Golf Digest on Monday.

“Every time I went to play somewhere around the world [outside the PGA Tour], I got an appearance fee because I’m an independent contractor,” Norman said. “You get paid appearance fees for what reason? You can put buns on seats, you can increase TV ratings, and if you can do that you bring in hospitality and sponsorship dollars. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

The play-for-pay, as opposed to pay-to-play, model is entrenched in the tour’s legal relationship with its players, who are, all together now, independent contractors. Whereas James Harden is an employee of the Brooklyn Nets, Brooks Koepka is an employee of no one. “Being my own boss is nice,” he says. “I like that.” The good part of that is players can, with certain restrictions, make their own schedule. The bad part of that is players run their own businesses.

“We have to pay for all of our travel. We pay for our physical therapy,” Dahmen says. “We pay for our food. We pay for lodging. [Team-sport athletes], they fly on their team jet. They use their team’s trainers. They have trainers provided by the team. It’s all in-house. They have basically no expenses. We have so many.”

Joel Dahmen, who has one win in his PGA Tour career, acknowledges that other players on tour draw far more fans than he does—and should be paid accordingly.

Mike Ehrmann

Which is palatable, so long as a player’s game and body remain in decent enough shape to play well and earn a good chunk of the purses available each week. If he misses a bunch of cuts, no paychecks from the tour. If he gets injured, his status is protected but the checks do not flow in. And so the prospect of guaranteed money—and lots, lots of it—gets Norman and Gardiner sit-down meetings with the big-boys agents, which have been going on throughout the year.

The PGA Tour responded to these flirtations by creating the $40 million Player Impact Program, a way to compensate the 10 biggest stars for something not directly related to their on-course performance. The tour is also giving each player who competes in at least 15 events this season a $50,000 bonus. Dahmen believes there is much, much more where that came from.

“The PGA Tour has really deep pockets. They magically come up with $40 million for PIP and then there paying us all 50 grand to play 15 events, which is another X million dollars. That’s like, $50 million that they just magically found laying around overnight. The money is there. There’s a way to do it.”

Justin Thomas, a strong candidate to receive some of that PIP cash, was asked Wednesday if he agrees that stars are not properly compensated on the PGA Tour.

“Maybe in the past, but I think with stuff like the Player Impact Program and purses and everything going up, I think it’s becoming that way,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t matter what you do or what sport you play or whatever it is, there's always going to be a handful or a group of guys that push the revenue or push the interest. There's plenty of guys and plenty of stories out here, but for me to come out here and say that I hold the same weight as Tiger Woods or I hold the same weight as Phil Mickelson, that's just not realistic. Guys should be compensated for that ... I think that was something that maybe wasn't addressed as much in the past, but is a lot now.”

The PGL’s ambitious vision includes a proposal to convert the PGA Tour from a 501(c)6 non-profit organization to a for-profit PGA Tour Inc.—and, notably, to make the players 50 percent owners of the league. Multiple players say this would be an increase from the current arrangement in which they claim they see somewhere in the 25-percent range of the tour’s income. (A PGA Tour spokesperson says that the tour pays out 54 percent of its "consolidated" revenues to players.) But the PGL would likely require players to compete in all 18 events, which could jeopardize their status as independent contractors.

These are the types of issues guys are now discussing with each other on driving ranges and in practice rounds. It’s why their agents are taking crash-courses in labor law. With alternatives on the horizon, at least potentially, the players have a very powerful weapon at their disposal: leverage. Often the only way to motivate a king to act is to threaten his reign.

“I think that’s kind of been the main thing that's come out of this,” Thomas said, “is, look, we can better our product and we can get better because of stuff like this. We can learn from it. I just think that a lot of it was honestly the players not knowing and also maybe the Tour not understanding that it could be done differently and that the players even felt that way.”