A (hesitant) defence of Jim Justice…
By Conor Nagle under PGA Tour

Tiger and Webb: just thrilled to be here.

Steve Elling of CBS Sports published an article this week titled “Greenbrier is example of hosting a tourney the American way — throw money at players” in which he took issue with the readiness of the resort’s multimillionaire proprietor, Jim Justice, to hurl vast sums of money at high-profile players in the hope of guaranteeing his tournament’s future.

Though unconfirmed by tournament organisers, Elling (a fine journalist, I should add) reports that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are receiving somewhere in the region of $1.5m and $1m, respectively, to tee it up in West Virginia this week.

In order to avoid compromising the PGA Tour’s blanket ban on pay-for-play contracts (ie. straighforward, European Tour-style appearance fees), the Greenbrier Classic has availed of an increasingly popular contractual loophole, tying the kickbacks to extra-competitive obligations like corporate events or pre-tournament clinics.

Semantic gymnastics ensue and – hey, presto! – your appearance fee becomes a “sponsorship arrangement” or “ambassadorial role”.

It’s a tactic endorsed, perhaps less overtly, by a host of Tour stops with similar long-term aspirations.

“In essence, select tournaments have become evermore clever and resourceful in finding ways to attract top players while skirting, albeit barely, the appearance-fee regulations. For the sake of propriety, let’s call them inducements.

“Two of the tour’s deep-pocketed sponsors, Zurich and Royal Bank of Canada, over the past 2-3 years launched what have become known as ambassador programs, wherein a handful of notable players have been signed to endorsement deals. “

Unsurprisingly, directors of tournaments with, one assumes, considerably smaller war chests are frustrated, both by the manner in which Justice’s spending has distorted the market in appearance fees – wait, make that “sponsorship arrangements” – and the passivity of the Tour itself, which refuses to stray from a narrow (some would say conveniently narrow) definititon of appearance money.

Cue sanctimony and, dare I say it, outright hypocrisy.

“I guess this is the way the game is played,” says one tournament director; “It’s not a fair fight,” another.

The difficulty I have with this perspective, one endorsed, albeit tacitly, by Elling himself (and, I suspect, the majority of fans), is its essential arbitrariness; it occupies an ill-defined grey area somewhere between to two clear, philosophical positions.

At one end of this golfing dialectic sits a utopia of sorts; let’s call it Option A. Here the PGA Tour functions as a benevolent guardian of the sport. Imagine it (!): a world where prize money was tightly regulated and tournament venues were selected with reference to purely philanthropic criteria.

Option B – the current, real-world status quo – is a plutocracy of sorts, in which the PGA Tour seeks to maximise its turnover by forcing prospective tournament hosts into a competitive bidding process.

The paying of appearance fees may carry unseemly associations for some, but at heart, how separate an inducement is it from the selection of an attractive venue, the provision of a generous prize fund or the promise of record-breaking ticket sales?

Tournament directors would, one assumes, have few qualms about emphasising the geographic convenience or historic significance of their venue over other, less worthy contenders, so why outlaw competition on the basis of financial might?

The values of Option A have no place in the world of Option B. In a world governed by absolutes, attempts at compromise look the height of naivety.

If anything, it levels the playing field, allowing tournaments in less attractive areas (rural West Virginia, for instance) to compete with the colossal natural endowments (climate, history, audiences, etc.) of California, Florida and New England.

Negotiations between the PGA Tour and tournament hosts are, euphemisms, buzzwords and shrugs in the direction of charity aside, business transactions, exercises in mutual self-interest.

Dealt an exceptionally difficult hand, it’s a principle Jim Justice can’t afford to ignore.

Conor Nagle