News & Opinion

PGA Tour’s cash grab defies reality

FedEx Cup playoffs trophy
The PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup

Amid the pain of a global pandemic and worldwide economic woes, the true spirit of the FedEx Cup endures: money, money, money

What’s worse: getting criticized or ignored? The FedEx Cup playoff series has endured a barrage of both throughout its 13-year existence, which doesn’t make it so much a failure as a small fish in a medium-sized pond. It would take a vivid imagination to suggest that the PGA Tour’s postseason franchise has caught on with the mainstream-sports crowd or found a home among America’s elite sports championships.

Frankly, it is what it isn’t. Wimbledon has its history, the Kentucky Derby a strong social dynamic, the Daytona 500 its standing as the granddaddy of NASCAR. Camp Ponte Vedra’s season-ending soiree can claim none of the above, and without such an identity, it has struggled to captivate the public or even serious golf fans.

And so, we’re left with a cash grab. A $60 million game show in which many of the contestants surpass $1 million in annual earnings by March. Each member of the Kansas City Chiefs received $124,000 for winning Super Bowl LIV in February – less than 10 percent of what caddie Harry Diamond likely was paid by Rory McIlroy after he won the 2019 Tour Championship and overall FedEx Cup crown.

Having done the math, it’s reasonable to think that Diamond made close to $3 million for carrying McIlrich’s bag last year. About half of it came from those four days in Atlanta, whereas the Washington Nationals needed the entire month of October to complete one of the greatest postseason runs in the history of Major League Baseball. Their share for winning the World Series: $382,358 per man.

The ring is nice, but the jing is better. Diamond’s financial windfall underscores the abundance of wealth flowing from a FedEx Cup runneth over. It’s not as if McIlroy and his childhood buddy weren’t piling up the dough en route to East Lake. The playoff loot basically amounts to a very large boat of gravy accompanying the Thanksgiving stuffing, which is all the Tour’s postseason derby ever has been about, anyway.

Money, money, money. A veteran industry insider recently wondered aloud how the Tour could continue dabbling in such massive numbers at a time when the coronavirus has threatened to cripple the world’s economy. The Tour itself laid off 50 or so employees last week, many of them longtime staffers. Eleven of the 49 events on the 2019-20 schedule have been canceled due to COVID-19, costing the operation tens of millions in title-sponsor revenue and perhaps as much from ticket sales and onsite corporate support.

It’s enough to leave you wondering how the Tour could have the gall even to stage its little playoff series this year. This deadly pandemic has forced everyone to wear masks at the grocery store. So many people have died, so many others have lost their jobs, and we’re gonna spend the next three weeks slicing up a $60 million pie?

The answer to it all is unbearably simple: business is business. Short of World War III, there’s no way the Tour will reduce purses or compromise relationships with its most valuable partners, notably FedEx. Such backpedaling would be conceived as a sign of weakness. Public perception is important, but it doesn’t pay the bills and it sure as hell doesn’t cover the $1.35 million awarded to Daniel Berger for his victory at Colonial.

Call them money-grubbers. Question their collective conscience. But don’t ever forget that the folks who run the most powerful organization in pro golf are overseeing a mighty empire at which the top priority is to serve its players. Always has been, always will be. That’s not going to change just because Aunt Gladys is now pumping her gas with a facial covering.

Money, money, money. Hey, the playoffs might be invisible, and they might be held under somewhat dubious circumstances, but they definitely aren’t worthless. Last year’s down-the-stretch tussle between McIlroy and Brooks Koepka was good TV, if not quite as compelling as the closing moments of “Gone with the Wind.” Ten of the 13 overall champions were worthy of the title. McIlroy and Tiger Woods have won it twice. Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas….

It’s not a bad list at all. The number of postseason qualifiers (125) is ridiculously bloated and the competitive format almost impossible to understand, but none of that matters unless somebody really cares. If you’re looking for water-cooler buzz, come back the day after the U.S. Open. The return of NBC for the second and third events is obviously good news, and if that doesn’t blow your skirt up, just think back to three months ago, when there wasn’t an ounce of live golf on television anywhere.

It is what it isn’t, but the FedEx Cup playoff series is a whole lot better than how it once was. Before its 2007 debut, a seemingly endless string of second-rate tournaments filled the schedule from late summer until the end of October. A WGC and the Tour Championship were the only gatherings of real substance. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how pro golf was doing all it could to help the NFL get even bigger.

Not anymore, baby. As Jim Mora once incredulously asked, “Playoffs? … Are you kidding me? Playoffs?”

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