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Appearance Fee Flap: Clearly Not Transparent

No, no, no, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson weren’t paid to play at The Greenbrier Classic. That would be an appearance fee and appearance fees are against PGA Tour rules. There are no appearance fees on Tour, just ask the commissioner.

Yes, yes, it’s true that Woods and Mickelson received a combined $2.5 million or more from Greenbrier owner Jim Justice and yes, it’s true that they both played in the tournament, which is strictly coincidence, don’t you see.

In the 1950s, they called it payola, influential national disc jockeys who accepted money and gifts from record companies to play their songs on the radio to ensure they would be big hits.

In Washington, they call it lobbying, representatives of the business community and special interests who ply congressmen with money and gifts in hopes of securing influence and favorable legislation.

In golf, they call it appearance fees, millions of dollars given by tournament sponsors to the game’s stars to assure their event has the best possible field, which attracts fans and increases television ratings, which helps the advertisers, including the title sponsors.

Payola was shut down and Jack Abramoff was jailed for four years for influence peddling. But appearance fees have thrived in all parts of the world – except in the U.S. And now, that appears to be changing.

Justice, owner of the Greenbrier Resort and sponsor of The Greenbrier Classic on the PGA Tour, wants a world-class field for his event and he can’t be blamed for that. So, he went out and got himself one and there’s not much better than Woods and Mickelson. You can’t get PGA Tour players to walk across the street without getting paid, much less fly the G4 to West-By-God-Virginia.

Justice opened his considerable checkbook and it has been reported that Woods was paid $1.5 million or more, while Mickelson was paid $1 million for the second straight year. But his contracts with Woods and Mickelson said nothing about playing in the tournament. They were “personal service” contracts specifying that the two players would be “ambassadors” for The Greenbrier Resort, an arrangement that skirts PGA Tour rules by the skinniest of margins. The decision to play in the tournament was made by two consenting adults, which is not against the law.

Justice is a billionaire, so a couple of million here and there doesn’t do any damage to his brokerage account. But the precedent is surely frightening to those who go to work each day at PGA Tour HQ. The letter of the law appears not to have been violated by Justice, but he surely has slapped the face of the spirit of the law, which brings us to the elephant in the room.

This is not Woods’ nor Mickelson’s first rodeo when it comes to being paid to play in a tournament. Neither would travel to Europe or Asia for a non-major without being assured to cash a big check and the big sponsors on those tours never hesitate to pay the appropriate tab.

But if you’re the John Deere Classic, how are you going to keep them down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Moline? Not even with a chartered jet to the Open Championship or the promise of a tractor or lawn mower, which the company manufacturers.

The question becomes: Will PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem turn a blind eye to these arrangements or will he step forward and call a halt to implicit appearance fees? If the Tour wants to enter the 21st century, it’s time to fall in step with the rest of the world and allow tournament sponsors to use money to attract the best players to ensure the best field possible.

The argument is that of the haves vs. the have-nots. Sponsors with deep pockets would have an unfair advantage over the small-sponsor, small-market events. If Zurich or HP could open their checkbooks to attract whomever they wish, it’s argued that it will take one of the Tour’s stars away from an event they normally play. And what’s to do? But how do you think a Fall Series event got Tiger Woods last year, anyway?

The flip side is that the Tour’s stars don’t usually play in more than 20 or so tournaments a year and to lure them into playing one or two more events they would not normally play with the promise of a big appearance fee would help tournaments with traditionally weak fields.

And appearance fees could help keep Tiger and Phil, et al, here in the U.S. instead of having them chasing dollars overseas. If Woods and Mickelson played one or two more events on the PGA Tour, instead of going to China or wherever, fattened by domestic appearance fees, it couldn’t help but strengthen the Tour.

If enterprising sponsors such as Justice can find a way around the PGA Tour rule, and Finchem decides to look the other way, other sponsors are sure to follow. Checkbooks are going to start flying open and tournaments that never had a chance to get top players to tee it up in their events are suddenly going to find that money is the universal language of the Tour player.

If disc jockeys and congressmen can be bought, Tour players are the first in line with their outstretched hands. And sponsors, given the right set of circumstances, are more than happy to oblige. Sponsors all over the globe have been doing it for years and the sweet irony is that the concept is oh, so American.


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