HUGGAN’S ALLEY: JOHH HUGGAN
WHENEVER I see or hear the words “appearance” and “money” in the same sentence my mind immediately goes back to 1981.
That year, with a 12-strong team containing 11 current or future major champions, the United States gave the European side a right good going-over to the tune of 18½ to 9½ at Walton Heath near London. The home team featured a few notables too - the likes of Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer – but one name was significantly absent. Due to an on-going dispute with the European Tour over “turning-up money,” Seve Ballesteros was not part of the heavily-defeated Old World squad.
So any debate over the legitimacy of golfers being compensated merely for turning up is nothing new. Nor is there today any sight of a solution to what some regard as an evil poisoning professional golf. Barring a brave new world in which everyone involved – players, agents, sponsors, tournaments, tours – agrees to ban this long-established practice, it is only ever going to take one miscreant to restore the current status quo. As soon as one or any of the above succumbs to the powerful pull of financial temptation, the rest will immediately follow suit.
This was essentially the thrust of the Ballesteros argument. At a time when the late, great Spaniard was the best player on the planet – or at least the next best thing – he was being told that no event on his home circuit would be allowed to pay for his peerlessly charismatic services, which was fine in isolation. But causing Seve some legitimate angst was the knowledge that those same events were surreptitiously passing mucho dinero to lowerranked Americans for the pleasure of their company. “Not fair,” said the past Open and Masters champion. Hence the impasse. Things have since moved on of course. Today, appearance fees are everywhere in the professional game. Even on America’s PGA Tour – which piously and disingenuously claims to be “clean” – players are compensated for turning up at cocktail parties and the like. And let’s face it, the multi-million dollar pot that doubles as a “bonus pool” during the season-ending FedEx Cup playoffs? Nothing more than appearance money under an assumed name. Still, is all of the above really harmful to the future of golf? Only minutes ago, an e-mail landed in my inbox. To my shock and surprise – not – the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship was proudly proclaiming the upcoming presence of Tommy Fleetwood, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Matt Kuchar and Paul Casey at next month’s tournament. “The magnificent seven” blared the drum-beating release, even if there was no sign of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson or any of those other four guys whose names I forget. Anyway, it is safe to assume that those high-profile players will not be flying to the Middle East needing to pick up a big cheque in order to make theirs a profitable week in the desert. But is that really a problem? Is there a viable alternative for the sponsors, HSBC? If the cash spent guaranteeing the presence of those big-names was instead re-directed into the prize fund, would the organisers end up with a superior field? Probably not in the real world.
At the recent $7million Nedbank Challenge in South Africa only three members of the World’s top-20 – Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Alex Noren – bothered to show up at Sun City. An extravagantly juicy pile of prizemoney is these days far from enough to interest the game’s mega-rich elite, which is nice for the rank-and-file players on Tour. More field spots for them. But the end result is bland. None of those relatively faceless individuals puts bums on seats, either in front of televisions or in grandstands on the course.
Deprived of star-quality, any tournament is destined to appear flat in a modern world hooked on a drug called celebrity. The charismatic and colourful Rickie Fowler may be minus a victory in a major championship and not really one of golf’s very-best practitioners – he is also, by the way, incredibly dull in an interview setting – but is he worth paying to play? Almost certainly, given his obvious appeal to younger members of golf’s audience.
The conclusion is clear. In this 21st century, appearance money is a fact of life in professional golf, a necessary malevolence. Eager to boost television exposure and column inches, it is difficult to blame tournament sponsors for spending large chunks of their promotional budgets on guaranteeing public interest in their events. So let’s not be causing our underwear to twist too much in the face of this immutable law. Cash chats. Actually, it raises its voice rather loudly. And everyone hears the message.