News & Opinion

Rogue sponsors fleece PGA Tour’s image

Surely, the PGA Tour wishes this news fell under the heading of “fake news.” This time, it’s not just all too real, but very familiar.

Another former sponsor of a Tour event has fallen under federal scrutiny for alleged improprieties, further denting the credibility of the world’s top golf circuit.

For a tour that preaches the sanctity of its rules, markets its players as paragons of virtue and celebrates the notion that controversies are non-existent compared with team sports, the PGA Tour too often has jumped into bed with shady characters in the past decade. That includes entities run by CEOs who fall somewhere between incompetent and criminal. Maybe both.

For those who visit the Tour’s website this week and click on the history page linked to the former Bob Hope Classic, a picture of Bill Clinton appears, with the former president standing next to the event’s 2016 winner, Jason Dufner. Clinton served as the host of the longtime Southern California event for five years, a run that ended shortly after he handed Dufner the winner’s check 24 months ago.

The tournament began its second year as the CareerBuilder Challenge on Thursday in the Coachella Valley, as the potential improprieties surrounding the Clinton Foundation piled up. The Washington Post reported two weeks ago that the FBI revived a probe into whether the charitable organization was a conduit for backdoor bribes paid in return for political favors from Hillary Clinton, the former Democratic presidential candidate who was secretary of state in the Obama Administration.

It’s been dubbed a “pay-for-play” scheme, which makes it sound like the Internet special at a daily-fee golf course. When it comes to some of the sponsors and hosts picked by the Tour as the namesakes at events during the past decade, the aroma has become increasingly foul. 

Oh, the irony: A sport in which adhering to the rules is an inviolate part of the game’s DNA routinely has staged established relationships with sponsors and hosts accused of breaking laws left and right. In fact, during the past decade, at least four sponsors or hosts have been targeted by federal investigators, sentenced to jail, gone bankrupt or watched as their CEOs resigned under duress.

The PGA Tour’s top priority is to stage as many tournaments as possible for its players, but potential sponsors seemingly aren’t vetted closely enough. Not many corporations have an extra $10 million in their marketing departments. When they knock on the Tour’s door, the red carpet is rolled out. 

When things go sideways, it tarnishes the image of the PGA Tour, its players and the sport. By electing to be a volume car dealer, the Tour is sure to have a few lemons on the lot.

Nobody argues that Bill Clinton, a huge golf fan, wasn’t a savior for the La Quinta, Calif., event. The Palm Springs Desert Sun described his impact thusly: “It is impossible to overstate how important the foundation was as the golf tournament teetered on the brink of extinction in 2011.” But the totality of the Clintons’ potential political baggage seemingly was ignored. Now, the Justice Department is poking at old scabs. 

There’s no need to single out the Clintons. Plenty of companies have sponsored recent PGA Tour events, only to run afoul of the law, the banks, public opinion or all three.

Developer Bobby Ginn once sponsored stops on the PGA, LPGA and Champions tours, but when the real estate market went south, so did his company. The PGA Tour eventually sued Ginn for breaching its sponsorship contract at the Ginn sur Mer Classic, which was played in 2007-08. Should the Tour have known better? Perhaps. Ginn’s development company had gone bankrupt a few years earlier in South Carolina, too.

Who can forget billionaire Allen Stanford, whose investment company produced eye-popping returns for millions of Americans before the feds raided his Houston headquarters in 2009. Stanford, who sponsored tournaments on the PGA and LPGA tours, was convicted in 2012 of running one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history. Stanford sits in a federal prison in Florida after defrauding customers, including Henrik Stenson and Vijay Singh. 

For years, Barclays sponsored a high-dollar FedEx Cup event on the PGA Tour and included Phil Mickelson as a paid endorser. Its golf-loving CEO, Bob Diamond, was a personal friend and occasional pro-am partner to Mickelson, before the banker was forced out of his job in 2012, reportedly for manipulating overseas interest rates.

Donald Trump wasn’t a title sponsor, but he became a lightning rod during his run for the presidency two years ago. Last spring, the PGA Tour moved the World Golf Championships event from Trump National Doral, which had hosted the Tour since 1962, to Mexico. Commissioner Tim Finchem, who since has retired, all but conceded that title sponsor Cadillac declined to renew its contract because Trump shifted the spotlight away from the people who were paying the sponsorship bill.

Certainly, the corporate culture deserves a share of the blame, too.

The moral here? There’s a reason why your mother told you not to put coins in your mouth as a kid. These days, it seems as if much of the money is tainted, if you look hard enough at the financial trail. But while the PGA Tour inarguably has whiffed with several image-bashing sponsorship ties recently, it could be worse.

The European Tour this season declined to forgo the final year of a contract to stage the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters. The tournament will be played in a country blockaded by the U.S. and several Persian Gulf nations, including the neighboring United Arab Emirates, claiming that the Qatari royals have financed and harbored terrorist groups. Because the UAE has instituted a travel ban to Qatar, the European Tour had to move the Qatar Masters from next week to late February, derailing the former three-event Desert Swing that began Thursday in Abu Dhabi. 

That decision underscored a disturbing notion: When it comes to the tournament invoice, the world tours seem less concerned about who pays, as long as the check clears.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling