Golf Australia - - CONTENTS -

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.

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