2005: A matter of appearance . . .
Davis Love III called the Sunday slugfest between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Doral’s Blue Monster “the best event of the year, maybe one of the best in the last five.” Why, then, two days later, was everybody at the Honda Classic talking about four pros who were paid to play a Monday outing with a bunch of car dealers?
“You know,” said Love, a member of the PGA Tour’s Policy Board, “that’s the problem.”
The “problem” Love was addressing is the dubious perception that PGA Tour players can be bought with de facto appearance money to show up to select PGA Tour events. What’s a rather commonplace practice on the European Tour – Ernie Els, for instance, reportedly received 200,000 pounds (approximately $383,000) as a “promotional” fee to play in Qatar last week – has been a longstanding taboo on the PGA Tour.
The Tour’s “bedrock” principle: Its players play on a level field, and earn what they earn.
There were growing whispers questioning ethics after four top-10 players (Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia) reportedly were paid six-figure fees to participate in a Monday Ford Motor Co. outing in Miami three days before the start of the Ford Championship. When sports management giant IMG then shopped a price menu of prospective players to select tournament directors, the tenor of the subject intensified.
The PGA Tour reacted swiftly to IMG’s solicitation, e-mailing tournament directors March 8 to inform them what took place at Doral – an off-day, off-site outing that had been conducted with the Tour’s up-front approval – will not mark a developing trend on Tour. That is, any player accepting any sort of value – cash or inducement – as incentive to play in a PGA Tour event could be subject to being disciplined for “conduct unbecoming a professional.”
“Our players are very aware of this,” said Henry Hughes, Tour senior vice president and chief of operations. “Obviously, they are independent agents and can do things outside the Tour. But when it comes to things that could have a negative impact on the image and value of the Tour, I think our players are well aware this is something we cannot stand for.”
The PGA Tour Tournaments Association’s 45 directors were scheduled to convene March 19-22
in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., for their annual meeting, and there will be plenty to discuss.
“We need to look at the rules and regulations and decide what the
long-term effect is going to be on the sport as a whole,” Honda Classic tournament director Cliff Danley said. “I’m not sure it’s the best thing for golf to go down this path.”
Many PGA Tour sponsors and tournament directors had to envy what Ford and first-year tournament director Eddie Carbone pulled off at Doral two weeks ago. The event attracted 11 of the top 12 from the Official World Golf Ranking and had the best Sunday television rating since last summer’s U.S. Open.
Bill Becker, who as Deere & Co.’s director of corporate brand management oversees title sponsorship of the John Deere Classic, said he found the concept behind IMG’s proposal “interesting,” but added, “It just goes against who we are with regard to things like integrity. And it makes me nervous, in that if we don’t play in that arena, are good names going to be drained from our tournament year after year?”
Added Cialis Western Open tournament director John Kaczkowski, “Where does it stop? You have an outing with four players, but what about the fifth- and sixth-ranked player? It strikes me you have a chance to burn some bridges. I’d be real nervous about who to include.”
Another issue: Where would the money come from to bankroll a Monday outing such as the one Ford staged at Doral, which was estimated in the $500,000 range? From the event’s overall purse? From dollars that might be earmarked for charity?
In part, IMG’s pitch to tournament directors stated IMG would secure five Tour pros – recommending two from a $100,000-$200,000 tier (a group that includes Singh, Els, Garcia and Love) and three from a secondary $50,000-$100,000 level – to play an outing on Monday of tournament week. (Though deals vary, a management firm routinely garners 20 percent of a player’s outing fee.) Those players in turn would “look favorably” upon staying to play the tournament proper. IMG also stated it would focus on players who traditionally do not play certain events.
“Let’s not be naive,” said Jim Furyk, who was surprised to learn
his name was one of 18 included on IMG’s menu. (Furyk is not an IMG client.) “I’m sure they’re not allowed to write ‘You come to the pro-am and have to play in the tournament.’ But you’d have to be one awful person to do that (not stay and play).”
Love also was on IMG’s list, though he, like Furyk, is not represented by IMG. He was angered by his inclusion. “And there’s other IMG players,” Love said, “that are upset that this happened . . . and they are embarrassed by it. If anybody made a mistake in this, to be clear, it was not the players and it was not the tournaments. It was somebody else.
“I’m going to demand that somebody go back and tell all of these tournament directors that I had nothing to do with it, because I was not aware of it and did not authorize it.”
IMG’s Mark Steinberg told Golfweek, “From an IMG standpoint, we would never send anything out that would violate Tour regulations. We have too much respect for the Tour.”
Steinberg also said because there was never any guarantee the Ford Four would stay and play Doral following the Monday outing, “there was no violation.” All four players were committed to playing the Ford Championship before signing on for the Monday outing.
So where is the line drawn, if one can be drawn at all? Isn’t this all just the blurring of an area that has been far more gray than black and white for some time? Wasn’t the Ford Championship excitement good for golf? For years, players have signed lucrative endorsement deals (Woods with Buick, Accenture, American Express; Mickelson with Ford; John Daly with 84 Lumber) with companies that sponsor PGA Tour events. At last week’s Honda, Love announced his own new deal with Acura, an upscale division of Honda Motor. And the Tour itself has lined up a Monday outing with UBS, presenting sponsor of The Players Championship, the day after the Players March 28, as well as an outing that will involve 10-15 players, according to Singh, following the WGC-NEC Invitational in August.
Being paid to participate in corporate outings is nothing new to top players. Harrington said he’ll play in “four or five” this year, and said playing in Ford’s Miami outing Feb. 28 gave him something to do.
“Truth was, I did it for the convenience,” he said. “I did it for less than my going rate. I was very happy to do the sponsor a favor.”
Hughes notes that tournaments in the marketplace have competed for the attention of the players since the formation of the PGA Tour nearly four decades ago. But perks such as free babysitting and discount restaurant tickets have given way the past few years to fishing excursions via helicopter, NASCAR driving experiences, theme park tickets and trips to the White House. And winners today often make off with more than a trophy and first-place check. Woods not only pocketed $990,000 for winning at Doral, but received a Ford GT sportscar valued at more than $140,000.
At the 84 Lumber in Pennsylvania last autumn, top players were enticed to play when promised as many as six first-class, round-trip airline tickets to the following week’s WGC event in Ireland. Hughes said such offers are permissible because they are proffered to every player in the field, and not limited “to any particular player or players.”
Hughes said the Tour still was investigating IMG’s Monday outing pitch to tournaments; he wasn’t sure exactly how many tournament directors received IMG’s letter.
“We’re working diligently to get to the bottom of this,” said Hughes, who would not comment on private discussions the Tour has conducted with IMG. “We take it very seriously. We notified the tournaments that this is a violation of their tournament contract should they enter into something like this, and our board has directed us to review the policy and regulations to make sure we have the grounds and the leverage to make sure that stuff like this doesn’t happen.
“We’re going to be sure that we maintain the value and the integrity that we’ve had for so long, and we’re not going to let something like this change that.”
– Alex Miceli, Dave Seanor, Jeff Rude, Mike Mazur contributed