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Money for nothing and your golf for free
Golf has come a long way in the 103 years since some far-sighted pro golfers appreciated that they were not deriving the benefits of free market forces for playing the game. These men could not have envisaged the protectionism that would ensue from forming an association of pro golfers, or the hypocrisy that would develop from it.

In a document leaked from International Management Group (IMG) this week, the going price for a round of golf with some of the world's leading players was listed and, depending upon your standpoint, these guys don't come cheap. 18 holes with Vijay Singh, for example, will cost you between $100,000 and $200,000. The price range presumably implies that the sum asked is negotiable dependent on Vijay's current form -- as, of course, it should be in the marketplace.

Vijay currently does not come cheap but neither do Els, Goosen, Garcia, Daly and Love, all of whom come in the same price bracket and are described as 'tier one' players. In 'tier two' we find David Duval, Luke Donald, Ben Curtis, Fred Couples, Jim Furyk and others of that ilk. They come in at between $50-100,000 - cheap at half the price.

The leaked document offers the services of a player at the start of a tournament week to join an 'intimate group of six foursomes' to provide 'a once in a lifetime opportunity to reward valued employees in an intimate setting with the tour's top professionals.' This in itself may amount to little more than golfing prostitution which in itself is legal and permissible, but it also goes on to say that the players will 'look favourably on staying for the tournament, which will enhance the strength of the field.' This is tantamount to an inducement for appearance money and the Tour emphatically bans the payment of appearance money.

The European tour's denial that it condones appearance money is hard to swallow. Ernie Els' appearance in Doha in the Qatar Masters tournament is hard to rationalise without introducing a special incentive for the lad. Ernie may have a special interest in modern architecture that would explain his appearance in Dubai - one of the many reasons given for the appearance of Tiger Woods two years ago when his friend, Mark O'Mera gave his reason as a free lift in Tiger's jet. But unless Ernie has a special interest in desert wildlife his appearance in Doha is hard to explain. Certainly his winners cheque did not match that which Harrington pocketed for his win in the Honda Classic in Florida and comes nowhere near the world ranking points that Harrington accrued.

It is difficult to assess into which 'tier' the rest of the field in Qatar would be ranked in IMG's price list but 'tier three' would flatter most. Els assuredly did not play in Doha for health reasons and it is doubtful if he is a man on a mission to popularise golf as a peacekeeping weapon in the Middle East. The simple fact is that the Qatar Masters needed someone of Els' stature in the field and the European Tour needed the Qatar event to fill its calendar. Els being there was a good thing all round for everybody concerned and there is no reason why everyone concerned should not be open about it.

The absence of Tiger Woods from the IMG price list is notable for he is, after all a client.
Tiger is reported to earn $80 million annually from endorsements and, given his iconographic status, the guy who paid $500,000 for a round with him in a charity auction got him at a bargain price. Clearly, with his earnings, Woods is above playing with corporate tosspots, but his appearance in some events and not in others surely smacks of collusion and begs the question if this is any different in essence from receipt of appearance money? His appearance in a tournament field is generally held as the greatest influence on TV viewing figures as well as the sale of corporate hospitality suits, so his $80 million income is surely dependent on his actually appearing!

Market forces set the price of goods in the shops and IMG's leaked document makes clear that pro golfers are merely marketable commodities. Why should the Tours not simply accept this fact and get rid of the hypocrisy? There is clear evidence now that a tournament sponsor can buy the field for the event, so let it be. Of course the pressure on winning will be increased and entertainment value will be rewarded, but that is surely how it is in show business. And, as in show business, clauses could include a requirement for Monty to smile and for Mickelson to desist from grinning like a maniac.

Like me, many will find it hard to understand why anyone would want to expose their game to the scrutiny of a leading Tour player. Sado-masochism is the only reason why some normal mortal would wish to tee-up alongside some big-hitting name in the game. The price tags only serve to reflect how much some people will pay to have themselves humiliated by exposing their inadequacy.

But what is truly amazing is that some of the leading players in the world are happy to inflict suffering on the inadequate and to have their going rates for their services as a price tag on their bags. Now that is cheap.

©    14 - MARCH 2005

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