The practice of paying large sums of money (“cash-money,” or rather “Benjamins”) to high-profile players in exchange for their cooperation in granting your tournament – whether it be the Oil-Rich Emirate Open or the Isolated Authoritarian Regime of East Asia Invitational – a glimpse of their luminous selves, is common practice on most of the world’s tours.
Most of the circuits, that is, except the PGA Tour, a land of milk and honey, where favourable demographics and sound economics routinely combine to yield the most lucrative tournaments in the world.
This week’s European Tour event, the Abu Dhabi Championship, carries a prize fund of $2.7 million, modest by the stratospheric standard of its PGA Tour equivalent, Farmers Insurance Open. There, in sunny California, competitors will duke it out for a share of $6 million, the winner guaranteed to depart the South Course with a cheque for a little over one-sixth of that total.
But it’s former that can boast of an elite field: six of the ten highest-ranked players in the world, including the top four; the greatest golfer of all-time; 97 European Tour winners; and 25 Ryder Cup veterans.
It’s a disparity whose explanation begins and ends with astronomical appearance fees, a fact Tiger Woods didn’t shy away from during his press conference this morning:
“That’s one of the reasons why a lot of the guys play in Europe. They do [it to] get paid.”
Woods, for instance, is rumoured to be receiving a little over $1.5 million for his cameo this week, while the sums offered to marginally lesser lights like Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and World Number One Luke Donald will comfortably exceed five figures.
Though it’s tempting to dismiss the practice outright as a sort of mercenary deviation from golf’s norm, where competitive meritocracy is supposed to reign supreme, appearance fees do serve a worthwhile purpose.
Deprived of their influence, few of the world’s top golfers would ply their trade beyond the boundaries of mainland USA.
Appearance fees are a mechanism, albeit a crude one, for guaranteeing the vibrancy of both the European Tour and its affiliates further afield. Without guaranteeing depth necessarily – given the hosts’ astronomical wealth, this week can be considered something of an exception – the presence of a few, carefully selected marquee names can, for a host of peripheral tournaments, mean the difference between growth and fiscal implosion.
Exploiting the shared interest of sponsors and players alike in manufacturing a certain financial return from investment in the most unpredictable of sports, the freedom to “award” appearance fees maintains the viability of international tournament golf.
It’s not the most elegant solution, nor the most equitable, but it works.