News & Opinion

A man and an idea ahead of their time

25 years ago this week, Greg Norman proposed the World Golf Tour, but it went nowhere … until the PGA Tour ran with the concept

Google “World Golf Tour” and you’ll be directed to a video game. Had the search engine been around 25 years ago – as well as social media – cyberspace would have been teeming with invective directed at Greg Norman.

On Nov. 17, 1994, at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where he was hosting the Shark Shootout, Norman unveiled plans for a World Golf Tour. Today, he would have been hailed in some quarters as a disrupter. Instead, he was universally vilified as greedy and arrogant. In short order, the World Golf Tour became an epic failure.

As it turns out, the concept presaged the PGA Tour as the global sports juggernaut we know today.

Greg Norman says of his ill-fated World Golf Tour: ‘What irks me the most is how it all played out, and how I was positioned incorrectly. The perception versus reality really did hurt me.’

“It was audacious,” Norman told Morning Read earlier this week. “I was ahead of my time, I guess. I could see the way golf was growing on a global front, because I was a global player.”

Norman has no shortage of ego. He often has been a lightning rod. Like him or not, his take on the legacy of the World Golf Tour is credible.

When Norman took the stage on that fateful day in November, the chiseled, blond, Great White Shark from Australia was the No. 2 player in the world, behind Nick Price of Zimbabwe. The top six in the Sony Ranking (now the Official World Golf Ranking) were all born outside the United States. Twenty-seven of the world’s top 50 players were Americans. Fred Couples was best, at No. 7; Corey Pavin, No. 9.

Pro golf’s marquee players weren’t Americans, but America’s PGA Tour was the game’s ultimate showcase. It had achieved that status thanks to the tactical genius and iron-fisted management of Deane Beman, who 5½ months earlier had stepped down after 20 years as commissioner. His successor was Tim Finchem, a diminutive, button-downed Tour executive, hand-picked by Beman.

Norman believed that golf’s elite players deserved a world stage, unfettered by the PGA Tour.

“The PGA Tour wasn’t out there, understanding what global golf was doing,” he said. “They were focused on growing domestic tournaments. I thought, Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if we could still play our 15 tournaments in America [required to maintain membership], still be obligated to the PGA Tour, and yet still be able to grow the game of golf on a global basis?

The time appeared ripe to challenge the status quo, not only because international players were golf’s best, but also because the PGA Tour faced an existential threat from the Federal Trade Commission.

At issue were the PGA Tour’s “conflicting events” rules that prohibited members from competing in events held the same time as Tour tournaments, unless they obtained a release from the commissioner’s office. For four years, FTC lawyers had been investigating the PGA Tour, trying to determine whether the conflicting-events rules constituted restraint of trade.

The threat was real. The PGA Tour is underpinned by corporate sponsorships and media-rights fees. If top players were routinely siphoned off to rival tournaments, the Tour’s product would be devalued. Sponsorships and broadcast rights would become a tougher sell, leaving the specter of failed tournaments, reduced prize money and diminished contributions to charity, the latter a Beman stroke of genius that gave Tour events non-profit tax-exempt status.

“We always looked at ourselves as independent contractors,” said Norman, noting stars such as Spaniards Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria-Olazabal, who were more inclined to compete in Europe rather than in America. “It was very onerous, the regulations we signed onto as members of the PGA Tour, if you were an international player. Seve and myself actually went toe-to-toe [with the Tour], trying to get people to understand that we were independent contractors, and you cannot prevent us from making a living anywhere in the world.”

In the fall of ’94, Finchem – a former Washington lawyer who had served on President Jimmy Carter’s staff – began hearing that FTC investigators were going to recommend that the commission take legal action against the Tour. At the same time, he was getting intel about the proposed world tour. On Nov. 15, he sent a pre-emptive memo to PGA Tour members, advising them that anyone who participated in a renegade event would be suspended.

“That letter that went out to the players – my gosh, you talk about putting a guillotine over an independent contractor’s neck,” Norman said. “If that would have happened today, it would have prompted a massive lawsuit.”

At the time, Norman said, “I just didn’t know any better, even though I was getting legal advice.”

More often than not, Tour members who requested one-off releases to play in conflicting events got them. But a series of tournaments that would diminish the fields at multiple Tour stops was an altogether different story. Norman denies that the world-tour gambit was timed to test Finchem’s resolve just when FTC investigators were in the final stages of building a case against the PGA Tour.

“I knew about the FTC probe,” he said. “I knew about all the stuff going on behind the scenes, and I thought it was kind of interesting, to tell the truth. But I didn’t want to get injected into that probe. I had my own battle to fight.”

Joining Norman for the World Golf Tour unveiling were John Montgomery Jr., and David Hill. Montgomery, whose father’s company set up PGA Tour event infrastructure, was introduced as the new tour’s chief operating officer. Hill was representing Fox Sports, which launched only months earlier and was committing $25 million to the effort as the new venture’s broadcast partner.

Norman said plans called for eight tournaments in 1995, with the first event to be held in March. The fields would consist of the top 30 available players from the Sony Ranking and 10 sponsor exemptions. First prize for each tournament would be $600,000; last place in a field of 40 would be guaranteed $30,000.

Each player who committed to the World Golf Tour would receive up to $50,000 in travel allowance, depending on the number of tournaments played. The season-ending Player of the Year would get $1 million.

The World Golf Tour triumvirate offered no other details. No dates, no venues, no sponsors. Nevertheless, Norman said, “the response has been overwhelming.”

The numbers were staggering. In 1994, the average winner’s take in 36 full-field PGA Tour events, not counting the four major championships, Players Championship, NEC World Series of Golf and Tour Championship, was $216,250.

Norman’s prize for winning the ’94 Players Championship was $450,000. Olazabal took home $360,000 for his victory in the World Series of Golf as well as $360,000 at the Masters. The U.S. Open payout to Ernie Els was $320,000; Price won the British Open ($178,200) and the PGA Championship ($310,000).

Eight tournaments with guaranteed money and first prize of 600 grand? Unreal.

Other aspects of the announcement strained credulity, as well. Four events were to be held in the U.S. and one each in Canada, Scotland, Spain and Japan. A tentative schedule reportedly included WGT tournaments before each major, kicking off March 30-April 2 1995. That would have given organizers four months to nail down the first venue; secure local government permitting; sign sponsors; set up infrastructure; contract with food, beverage, retail and waste-removal vendors; groom the course; create marketing; and sell tickets. Plus, it would provide time for Fox Sports to hire and organize a TV production team that could deliver a credible broadcast by a fledgling network sports division with zero golf experience.

“There was a lot of planning leading up to Nov. 17, and we all felt confident we could actually make this work,” Norman said. “It’s not like it was a full-field event. We had already done our DD [due diligence] and understood the pros and cons of making the decision to go forward, and everybody came to the conclusion that, yes, we can do it.”

Price said Norman was impulsive, but he “has my total support, as long as my position on the PGA Tour isn’t challenged.” Price was wary of repercussions from the Tour. “I made that clear to Greg,” he said.

Media reaction to the WGT proposal was swift and eviscerating.

“Norman’s gall and greed stunned much of golf,” wrote Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell. He called the World Golf Tour a “brazen display of self-interest” and an “ugly idea, both crass and alien to golf.”

Baltimore Sun columnist John Steadman was outraged, too. “What Greg Norman, in a self-serving way, has proposed will destroy the American professional golf tour,” Steadman wrote. “The one sport that hasn’t been besmirched by scandal – including fixes, betting coups or taking drugs – stands as a powerful beacon of decency and integrity. It has extraordinary leadership.”

If that sounds like a PGA Tour press release, it’s no coincidence. The Tour’s messaging apparatus held the upper hand, creating a narrative of order vs. chaos and charity vs. greed.

“I thought it was totally unnecessary to have the propaganda machine go at me the way they did,” Norman said.

After Norman’s announcement, the Tour convened an evening players’ meeting. Arnold Palmer asked for the floor and delivered a scathing denouncement of the World Golf Tour.

“I was shell-shocked when I got out of that meeting,” said Norman, his voice rising. “Are you kidding me? How about having an open discussion about this, guys? How about not slaying the dream and just shutting me down and ostracizing me in front of the other players?”

Norman believes Palmer’s appearance was orchestrated by the management company IMG, which for years has been inextricably entwined with nearly every aspect of professional golf. IMG ran the Sony Ranking and represented dozens of Tour players, including a founding alliance with Palmer, who died in 2016. Two years earlier, Norman had severed a long-time relationship with IMG.

Conspiracy or not, Palmer’s intervention exemplified the hurdles faced by the World Golf Tour.

Nor did it help that the proposed World Golf Tour was news to many of its target players. There was no official individual contact from the WGT until Dec. 13, when an envelope was slipped under hotel-room doors at the Tryall Resort in Jamaica, where an elite field had assembled for the unofficial Johnnie Walker World Championship. Its contents included a vague description of the World Golf Tour proposal and a plea to sign the enclosed commitment agreement.

Nick Faldo, No. 4 in world at the time, was a Johnnie Walker headliner. When asked about the WGT, he replied: “What world tour? It’s not going to happen. There is nothing concrete at all, and the proposals have not been thought out. Nothing makes sense.

“If Greg had got the support of the leading players before making an announcement, it would have made a bigger impact, but he never spoke to anybody,” Faldo said. “The first approach I’ve had was when something was shoved under my door this week.”

The overture in Jamaica garnered no responses. By then, even those whom Norman believed to be pro-WGT had disavowed the concept. The World Golf Tour was dead.

“That was very hurtful,” Norman said. “Look, I know there was a lot of pressure put on players behind the scenes. There were a couple of my really good friends, I thought at the time – which goes to show you, obviously, they were not – who didn’t stand up for it. And it wouldn’t have taken much more of an effort to stand up and say, I’m an independent contractor, and I have the right to play golf wherever I want to go.”

The FTC threat still loomed. With the World Golf Tour swatted aside, Finchem turned his attention to a full-court press on members of Congress and FTC commissioners, making the case – often in person – that conflicting-event rules ensured the vitality of PGA Tour tournaments, which in turn contributed to local economies and charitable works.

On Sept. 1, 1995, the Tour received word from the FTC that the commission had decided “not to take any action after a five-year investigation into whether tour rules unreasonably constituted restraint of trade and competition.” The four FTC commissioners had voted unanimously to drop the case.

Norman was bruised, but not broken. In 1995, he was the PGA Tour’s leading money winner, thanks to nine top 10s – including three wins, T-3 in the Masters and 2nd at the U.S. Open – in 16 starts. He also won the Australian Open.

“I’m very good at compartmentalizing,” Norman said. “When people want to see somebody down and out, the strongest way of [combatting that] is showing everybody that you’re successful and you’re happy. I just kept striving, doing what I love to do. At the end of the day, doing what I did in ’95 helped the rest of the world see that I wasn’t such an ogre to the game of golf.”

The last of Norman’s 20 PGA Tour victories, at the 1997 NEC World Series of Golf, was bittersweet. Two years later, the event was reconstituted into one of three limited-field World Golf Championships, each offering first prize of $1 million. When Finchem, in early November 1997, revealed plans for the WGCs, as well as creation of the PGA Tour’s International Federation, Norman went ballistic.

“He hung me out to dry,” Norman fumed at the time. He said Finchem had promised to keep him “in the loop” regarding international expansion but was shut out from WGC planning, which produced a format undeniably similar to Norman’s proposed World Golf Tour.

The 20-year-old World Golf Championships comprise only four events (two in America and one each in China and Mexico), but the rewards are outsized.

When Price was the Tour’s leading money winner for the ’94 season, his earnings fell $73 shy of $1.5 million. That’s the equivalent of roughly $2.6 million today, or about $855,000 more than Rory McIlroy earned three weeks ago for four days’ work at the HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championships event in Shanghai.

The phenomenon of Tiger Woods, of course, was a godsend to Finchem, who skillfully leveraged Woods’ popularity into huge TV contracts, coveted sponsorships and whopper increases in tournament prize money.

In 2007, the Tour launched the FedEx Cup, a season-long, oft-tweaked points race to qualify for a series of “playoff” events. This year’s winner, McIlroy, earned a deferred $15 million.

In 2012, the Tour began to monopolize elite golf’s feeder system by assuming control of the Canadian Tour, which it rebranded as PGA Tour Canada, and the Tour de las Americas, which became the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. In 2014, PGA Tour China was launched. All are primary steppingstones, along with a version of traditional Q-School, to the Korn Ferry Tour, which is the developmental gatekeeper to the Big Show.

The European Tour, meanwhile, has done a commendable job staying relevant by creating the Race to Dubai, co-sanctioning the majors and WGCs, and staging tournaments in 15 European nations and 15 countries in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Middle East.

“From my perspective, the World [Golf] Tour is no different than today’s PGA Tour,” Norman said. “If you’re one of the top players in the world, and you have the ability to compete in special events, it’s a reward-based system.”

In the final analysis, Norman’s quixotic brashness – forward thinking, as it may have been – was no match for Finchem’s political instincts and methodical consensus-building. Conflicting event rules have become an anachronism; PGA Tour purses have grown so large that there’s no incentive to buck the system. Top players actually want to play less, not more.

Woods typically gets credit for pro golf’s wealth, but Norman laid out the possibilities.

“I don’t feel vindicated,” Norman said. “I still feel angst because here I am talking about [the World Golf Tour] 25 years later, and a lot of people ask me about it during interviews. What irks me the most is how it all played out, and how I was positioned incorrectly. The perception versus reality really did hurt me.”