News & Opinion

Money could lure stars to rival pro tour

To say that we should have seen this coming is also to say that professional golfers never have had better chances to make a pile of money. At the Players Championship, the purse was $11 million and the winner, Webb Simpson, picked up a check for $1.98 million. As big as that sounds, the winner of next month’s U.S. Open will earn more. At last year’s Open, Brooks Koepka was paid $2.16 million of a $12 million purse.

Yet, as with all professional sports, there is never any such thing as too much money. Which is why something called the World Golf Series has been hatched. Reportedly in the works for more than a year, the proposal calls for 15-20 tournaments yearly, each with a purse of “close to” $20 million.

Organizers hope, by stacking money this high, that the world’s best players will flock to such a cash grab, leaving behind the comparatively less lucrative PGA Tour and European Tour.

According to Reuters, an international news service, the British-based World Golf Group is negotiating with all of the pertinent actors – players, agents, sponsors and TV networks – to put this tour together.

Somewhere near Jupiter, Fla., Greg Norman could be smiling. Norman, a former World No. 1, had the idea of a World Golf Tour for the game’s best players in the early 1990s, a plan that ultimately was scuttled by Tim Finchem, then commissioner of the PGA Tour, who threatened to revoke the Tour membership of any player joining the WGT.

When Finchem introduced three of four World Golf Championship events to the Tour calendar in 1999, Norman was incensed, especially when Finchem didn’t give Norman an ounce of credit.

In December 2016, Norman went cryptic with the press at the opening of his design at the Greg Norman Signature Course in Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta in Mexico.

"In the middle second quarter of next year, I'll invite you guys down to my office,” Norman told reporters. “We will tell you exactly how we're going to break this cast iron that's been wrapped around golf for so long. We're going to shatter it. The institutions [USGA, R&A, PGA of America, PGA Tour] will eventually buy into it because they will have to buy into it. They won't have a choice.”

Whether Norman’s gauntlet throw-down in the face of the golf establishment has anything to do with the World Golf Series is anyone’s bet. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck … it would seem to be more than coincidence.

Of course, for this new maverick tour to succeed, it would have to sign the world’s best players. It’s not certain what size fields these events would feature, but it’s a no-brainer that the World Golf Series would need most of the top players. In fact, player agent Chubby Chandler told Reuters that, “The cards are stacked against them if they don’t get six of the world’s top 10 players to sign up.”

And most of the top players seem to know what’s going on. One player, who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity, said, “Why would you not be interested — 18 tournaments for $20 million?”

There are a couple of major roadblocks for this scheme. The first is world ranking points. The Official World Golf Ranking is backed by the PGA Tour, USGA and R&A. And Chandler almost guarantees that none of the World Golf Series tournaments would be granted access to the OWGR and get ranking points for its players.

“Every player’s [endorsement] deal is centered around world ranking points,” Chandler said. “This series will never get world ranking points, so it will cost people money in the end.”

Which leads us to the next issue: major championships. More and more, professional golf has become major-centric. And golfers who would play all of their tournaments on the World Golf Series, if they don’t get world ranking points, might not be eligible for the majors. That would be a deal-breaker for players who might consider joining this tour.

But consider this: No major championship is conducted by the PGA Tour. If most of the top players were to join the World Golf Series, Augusta National, the USGA, the R&A and the PGA of America would face a choice. They could stand on principle or they could recognize the World Golf Series and find a way for its top players to qualify for the majors.

Perhaps that’s what Norman was talking about to the media when he claimed that things were about to be permanently shaken up in the game.

The PGA Tour will resist this effort with every ounce it can muster. But it might not matter. If World Golf Series organizers come up with the money and the exposure – and if the major championships acquiesce – it would be the first great test of Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.

For certain, it’s the elephant in the room at Ponte Vedra Beach. We should find out soon enough whether the best players play for money or trophies. And whether loyalty in golf exists anymore.

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: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter@mikepurkeygolf