As the golf world turns its attention toward the 33rd Ryder Cup, which begins Friday at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the man atop the event's sponsoring organization would like to think the focus finally will shift from the money to the competition.
"Now that [the American] players know where the money is going, I'm certain that all they care about is winning back the Cup," Jim Awtrey, CEO of the PGA of America said last week. "I would like to think all the controversy is behind us and the money is a non-issue."
That may be the case when a 12-man U.S. team faces a similar contingent from Europe in three days of match play. The Americans lost possession of the Cup at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., in 1995, then failed to regain it two years ago at Valderrama Golf Club in Spain, where the rumblings of pay-for-play were first heard from several U.S. players. The issue reached a crescendo last month during the PGA Championship in Medinah, Ill.
That week, Tiger Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson and Mark O'Meara said the players should be paid for participating in what has become a mega-event that will generate an estimated $63 million in gross revenue this year and a $16 million profit. If they weren't going to be paid individually for participating, the players said, they at least wanted a portion of the profits donated to their favorite charities.
Many members of the media criticized the players, saying they were being greedy and unpatriotic for suggesting that they receive more than a $5,000 stipend and all the red, white and blue outfits they could stuff in their complimentary luggage and golf bags.
Even U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw, during an emotional news conference at Medinah Country Club, questioned anyone who couldn't give up a week to play for their country in what essentially has become the Olympics of golf. Never mind that the NBA's Dream Team players were paid for the Olympics, that Davis Cup players are paid to participate and that U.S. women's soccer players were compensated handsomely for their 1999 World Cup play.
Still, Awtrey and PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, trying to quell the controversy, announced that by the end of the year, they will have a plan that addresses the players' concerns about charitable contributions.
And the U.S. players say they are satisfied.
"We've all put it behind us," Justin Leonard, the 1997 British Open champion, said last week. "As a team, we're in a good position. We're comfortable with what's going on, and now it's let's go ahead and play and get the Cup back."
However, Leonard and others acknowledged that, with all the money pouring into pro golf for a variety of reasons--the Woods phenomenon, aging baby boomers looking for safer sports, an explosion of affordable public golf courses and a four-year, $500 million TV contract--the players are taking more interest than ever in where the money is coming from and where it is going.
"Guys are definitely more aware" about the tour's finances, Leonard said. "I also think the tour has done a great job in increasing purses and letting us know where [the money] does go."
A TPA is Born
In 1998, the tour's purses totaled $96 million. This year, with 47 tour events, that figure increased to $134 million. And in 2000, the purses are expected to rise by another 10 to 20 percent.
Woods, a six-time winner this year, has become the first player in history to surpass $4 million in on-course earnings in a season. And with a half-dozen events remaining, 27 players have surpassed $1 million for the season, and 69 have made more than $500,000.
Despite all that prosperity, the tour has its critics, chief among them Danny Edwards, 48, a longtime journeyman pro and self-made millionaire. He now is a part-time player but full-time thorn in the tour's side as head of the two-year-old Tour Players Association.
The TPA began when Edwards, former PGA champion Mark Brooks and Larry Rinker distributed a questionnaire among their fellow pros about a wide variety of issues on the tour. It has become a loosely knit group that has no plans to unionize but would like to give the players a greater voice in tour policies, get them more information about tour finances and help lesser-known tour players by working to redistribute tournament purses so they include guaranteed money, even if players miss the cut.
Edwards claims to have 60 members in his group, though when asked to identify them, he politely declines, saying he doesn't want to subject them to pressure from players who disagree or from tour executives. He also says several of the game's stars, including several Ryder Cup players, have told him they support his effort to delve deeper into the tour's books. Any names? Again, he says, "Not yet, but give me time."
Player unrest in pro golf is not unprecedented, but Edwards makes it clear that his association would prefer to operate within the current tour framework, as opposed to what occurred in 1968, when touring pros broke away from the PGA of America and formed an autonomous association that became the PGA Tour.
Still, the TPA has retained Ropes and Gray, a 140-year-old Boston law firm with 400 attorneys that recently helped the NBA's retired-players association get $100 million from the league for increased pensions.
"Right now, we're getting the facts, preparing ourselves and will soon be writing to Tim Finchem to request a meeting," said Dennis Coleman, a member of the firm who is representing the TPA. "We think the focus right now should be on bringing the Ryder Cup home, but we also look forward to going down the road and seeing what's there."
Edwards also is being advised by Leonard Decof, a widely respected attorney from Providence, R.I., who successfully fought the PGA Tour in the early 1990s on behalf of club manufacturer Karsten Solheim over the issue of Solheim's square-grooved Ping golf clubs.
Edwards also has consulted recently with the NFL Players Association to determine how golfers fare in comparison to athletes in other sports in terms of the percentage of gross revenue that goes to the players. In pro football, a sport in which players' careers last an average of about five years, it's about 68 percent. Edwards believes golfers' purses pale in comparison to the revenue generated by tour events and by The Masters, the U.S. and British opens and the PGA Championship, which are not run by the PGA Tour and have their own television rights deals.
"I think we have people playing for a fraction of what other athletes are getting," Edwards said this week. "The Masters and U.S. Open are generating $40 to $50 million, and we're playing for $3 million? Tour events are also generating a lot of money. We think purses are about 10 to 15 percent of gross revenue. I know we're playing for more than we ever have, and people will say we're just being greedy, but we've been down in the trenches for so long, we don't realize how far behind we really are."
Said Decof: "I think the tour and all of golf is really in a state of flux right now. It's big, big business, and all of this was bound to happen. This is not a revolution, it's an evolution. These players all have lawyers and agents, they're all bright people, and they all ask questions. Where is the money going? Why does this happen, why does that happen? The tour is not really giving them the answers."
PGA Tour officials vehemently disagree. Finchem said this week that while he had no intention of debating Edwards, the tour's books are open to any player who would like to see them, and many have. He also said players this year will earn about 68 percent of the gross revenue that does not go to charities with which various tournaments are affiliated.
"The players run this organization, it's their organization," he said. "When they say, 'We need to know the finances of the tour,' that is a joke. We make all of that available to them, at any time. The players are intimately involved with all the decisions, and the information is made available to all of them. Some players don't look at it, but the vast majority of players do focus on all the issues we have. I don't think that's ever changed since the organization was set up.
"The reality is, if you look at the NBA, the NFL, any of the other sports, our players always come out ahead of where they do because we don't have any owners. We get the revenue. This year, it will be about 68 percent of the available revenues that go back to the players between purses and their pensions and benefits. The other 32 percent is the cost to run the organization. And this is a not-for-profit organization."
Coleman, the lawyer representing the TPA, said if the tour is run by the players, and for the players, then "How is it that of their nine members of the board, only four are players?"
Decof pointed out that while the tour is a not-for-profit organization, "They have a number of wholly owned subsidiaries that are very much for-profit spun off it. Their Tournament Players Clubs, their TV production arm, all those PGA golf stores you see in airports. These are the things the players want to know about, and they have every right to know.
"That's what happened with the Ryder Cup, too. These players see what's going on, they can see how much they're charging for tickets and the corporate tents. They asked questions, and those were questions their own tour should have been asking."
The explosion in Ryder Cup revenue also has been a 1990s phenomenon. In 1989, the event wasn't broadcast on network television. In 1991 in Kiawah Island, S.C., the infamous "War by the Shore" elevated the Ryder Cup in the minds of the American public to a significant international competition.
Americans had dominated over the first 50 years, but the European team won in 1985 and 1987, then retained the Cup with a tie in 1989. Suddenly the American sports public started to ask why. When the event came to Kiawah Island, at a time when patriotism was at a fever pitch following the Persian Gulf War, the Ryder Cup entered a new dimension. NBC paid a then-unprecedented $2 million rights fee to televise the matches.
The U.S. team prevailed, 14 1/2 to 13 1/2, when Europe's Bernhard Langer lost the competition's final singles match to Hale Irwin by missing a six-foot putt on the 18th hole.
The Ryder Cup's coffers have runneth over ever since.
In its September issue, Golf Digest reported that the 1999 Ryder Cup would generate an estimated $63 million in gross revenue, and a $16.5 million to $17.5 million profit. Awtrey has confirmed that those numbers basically are accurate; others have said revenue might come closer to $75 million, and profits to $25 million.
"This year may be unique for this event," Awtrey said. "There are several factors. The U.S. not winning in Spain [in 1997]. A huge market in Boston, with a number of major corporations that also want to be involved. Everyone can't see the Ryder Cup, and this event is about being there, hearing the roar of the crowd. It's like the Super Bowl, you've got to be there."
In millions, the money that the '99 Ryder Cup will make*:
Corporate tents $16.3
59 @ $250,000-$500,000 each
200-300 @ $50,000 each
Program advertising $2
*PGA of America, The Country Club will split $10 to $12 million after expenses.
Source: Golf Digest magazine