News & Opinion

Golf’s dirty little secret might not be so filthy

The announcement was, on its surface, pretty innocuous. Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world, recently signed an endorsement deal with Royal Bank of Canada.

So? Good for him.

But here’s the catch: Johnson will play in the Heritage at Hilton Head the week after the Masters and the Canadian Open, to be played in July, the week after the British Open. Both events are sponsored by Royal Bank of Canada.

It’s certain that Johnson will be obligated to do a couple of days with RBC’s clients as part of his contract. But Johnson hasn’t played in the Heritage since 2009, and the Canadian only five times. So, doesn’t this amount to a tacit appearance fee? 

In case you thought that appearance fees weren’t allowed on the PGA Tour, you’d be right. Pay for play is against Tour rules, but that hasn’t prevented some sponsors from finding ways around it.

Believe it or not, for the longest time, the two dirtiest words in professional golf were not slow play. They were appearance fees.

In the 1980s, some European Tour events started paying a few of golf’s international stars to play in their tournaments – money over and above what they might win as competitors.

This concept blossomed over the next 20 years to the point at which appearance fees, particularly in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, got to be upwards of $3 million for Tiger Woods and a third of that for others near the top of the world rankings.

The reason the PGA Tour doesn’t permit appearance fees has everything to do with image, and former commissioner Tim Finchem has said so. One of the attractions of professional golf is that players are paid according to their performance. Paying a player up front to participate in a tournament before he has hit a shot casts some doubt that said player might lose his motivation to compete because he already has a fat check in his pocket, no matter how he plays.

But that hasn’t prevented some PGA Tour sponsors from skirting the rules. In 2005, Ford was the sponsor at the Doral event – now Trump Doral. IMG, the mammoth player agency, shopped a list of golfers – and prices – for some of its clients to participate in a Monday pro-am for Ford.

Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington were paid in the neighborhood of $100,000 or more to play in the outing. And, by the way, they stayed to play in the tournament.

In 2012, Jim Justice, the owner of the Greenbrier Resort – and now the governor of West Virginia – signed Woods and Phil Mickelson to “personal service contracts” reported to be worth more than $1 million each to participate in sponsor events around the Greenbrier Classic. Mickelson had played the event only once before, and Woods was making his first appearance.

By the way, both players missed the cut. It created a stir at the time, but the controversy quickly died. 

Why pay appearance fees? What’s the upside?

If a sponsor can guarantee top players in the field for an event they wouldn’t take a second look at, it obviously drives ticket sales and TV ratings. But what’s that worth to a sponsor? No one has publicly revealed a return on investment for having Woods or Johnson in the field, but it must be somehow worth the price or no one would do it.

Take the case of the Australian Open. Jordan Spieth went to defend his title in December, and Reuters reported that he was paid an appearance fee of $1 million by sponsor Emirates Airlines. That sum was more than the entire Australian Open purse.

Spieth won the Aussie Open twice in the previous three years, but there was no guarantee that he’d spend 20-plus hours on an airplane to take another shot at the title for a $225,000 AUD (about $175,000 U.S.) first prize.

But $1 million up front makes that plane ride a lot more palatable. And tournament organizers told Reuters that they had sold out their corporate hospitality as a result of Spieth’s commitment.

The PGA Tour under Finchem, who retired in late 2016, was unconcerned that appearance fees had gotten out of hand. His was a laissez faire attitude.

“There isn't anything happening out there that would say the guidelines are starting to get pushed by players in typically unique situations,” Finchem said in 2015. “Certain places have a fair amount of appearance money, and it can in turn go to the player's head.”

Does that in itself create a problem with the integrity of the game? No one seems to be worried, not even the players, especially the rich who just keep getting richer.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email:; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf