News & Opinion

If cash is king, PGA Tour hides crown

Remember when the money list mattered? Since FedEx arrived as the main sponsor, points have become the Tour’s main currency in Golf’s Gilded Age

The money list is dead. Actually, it died more than 10 years ago, but it can take a while to notice such things, and most people have more important things to lie awake about, anyway. Although there was no funeral, the money list definitely was buried. You can find it in a faraway corner of the PGA Tour website, where it rests in peace with a bunch of picayune statistical data.

There was a time when the dollar tally basically governed the pro game, not only determining exempt status but who got to play where. A victory still earns a man 18 percent of the total purse on any given week, but since the advent of the FedEx Cup in 2007, players officially are ranked by points accumulated, not nickels collected. In fact, the Tour doesn’t even publish individual earnings on its final leaderboards, which is a bit like buying a Rolls-Royce, then hiding it in your attic.

Jordan Spieth (USA) US PGA Championship 2015
Jordan Spieth, who banked $12 million and change in 2015, holds the record for PGA Tour season earnings.

Since no bank recognizes FedEx Cup credit as an actual currency, money remains very important. The Tour has deprioritized the financial factor for several reasons, the biggest being that an overnight courier spent a whole bunch of $$$$ to hang its shingle on the season-long competition/year-end playoff, and that corporate sponsor insisted on a points system to calculate overall performance.

“It was an integral part of the original negotiations with FedEx,” says a source who would know. “Conversely, the Champions Tour [still] uses the money list because its umbrella sponsor, Charles Schwab, is in the business of money.”

That makes sense, although Camp Ponte Vedra probably didn’t need to shoot the Almighty Dollar nine times in the forehead and dump it behind the year-to-date scrambling leaders. Nineteen PGA Tour players already have surpassed $1 million in the new season, none of whom has played in more than eight tournaments. Just 14 pros on the LPGA, which concluded its season on Sunday, reached that magic number over the entire 2019 schedule. The seniors do a little better with their paychecks, but Rory McIlroy ($2.31 million) has made almost as much in two PGA Tour starts as Schwab Cup champion Scott McCarron ($2.53 million) made in 26.

All of which amounts to another reason why the Tour doesn’t like to divulge its dollar signs: pro golfers make too much money!

“Back in 2007 and 2008, with the economic downtrend at the time, there was a fear of conspicuous consumption,” said Joel Schuchmann, the Tour’s vice president of communications. “The feeling was, Let’s not brag about the money these guys are making. You’ll always have those who talk about how much more Charles Howell III has made than Jack Nicklaus, but there came a point when we began asking ourselves, How we can get people to stop talking about money?

Nicklaus, by the way, dropped one spot on the all-time list last week, thanks to C.T. Pan, who bumped Jack into 287th place by virtue of a T-11 in Mexico. Pan earned $167,400 for his spirited effort – $23,400 more than the Olden Bear was paid for winning the 1986 Masters.

“The whole thing with the money list has its pros and cons,” Schuchmann said. “This is just a natural evolution.”

Translation: when a sponsor ponies up $60 million for a bonus pool, as FedEx now does, you switch from dollars to points on command. The Tour might be drowning in its own riches, but it’s not that arrogant. And though points and money are relatively similar in broad-perspective value, the point-allocation formula itself has undergone several changes in its 12 years. This makes it virtually impossible to compare an outstanding performance in 2017 to one in 2008, unless you, uh…..

Just count the victories and the percentage of total prize money won by a player in each season. Oh, and Charles Howell ($39.5 million) passed Mr. Eighteen Majors ($5.7 million) more than 16 years ago, so the sentimentalists need to go ahead and refresh their browsers.

We made it to 668 words here without mentioning Tiger Woods, whose mugshot (poor word choice?) should adorn every note of currency issued by CPV Savings & Loan. That victory in Japan last month pushed Eldrick north of $120 million in career earnings, but his coolest revenue-related achievement might have happened long before the money list was replaced by pro golf’s version of the metric system.

Woods became the first player to amass $2 million in prize dough, back in 1997. David Duval ($2.59 million) blew away his record the following year, to which Woods responded by hauling in $6.62 million in 1999, then $9.19 million in 2000. He would reach $10 million on three other occasions, after Vijay Singh set the single-season money mark ($10.9) in 2004. In 2015, Jordan Spieth squeaked past $12 million, which still stands as the record.

Remember Spieth? He finished 44th in the most recent FedEx Cup derby and still made $2.12 million. There isn’t a bank on earth that gives a flying fiduciary about those 1,026 points, but every teller will find a safe place for that money.