ATLANTA, GEORGIA | Let’s put aside for the moment how the scoreboard is stacked as this new iteration of the Tour Championship begins, giving Justin Thomas a two-stroke lead over Patrick Cantlay with others scattered in assigned spots behind them in the FedEx Cup finale.
It’s weird, curious, strange – pick your description – but it’s potentially captivating.
The $15 million payday to the winner is beyond captivating.
Or is it?
It is, in the words of Justin Thomas, “an extremely substantial amount of money.”
It’s more than Greg Norman earned in his entire PGA Tour career.
Yet, to hear some of the top players at East Lake Golf Club talk about the lottery-like payoff, it’s not about the money. Perhaps we should stop here and remind ourselves of the old adage that it’s always about the money, in business, in life and in sports.
The money does matter but, at least in the case of some top players, it’s not the $15 million on the line that drives them.
If the money truly didn’t matter, then the PGA Tour and FedEx wouldn’t be putting up a total of $70 million for this playoff that has smartly been reduced from four events to three while finishing before the first official kickoff of football season.
The money does matter but, at least in the case of some top players, it’s not the $15 million on the line that drives them. That speaks to how flush the life of top players has become. Good for them. They’ve earned it and before anyone argues that they’re overpaid, they’re worth what the market will bear.
Rory McIlroy, who is wealthy beyond his dreams already, asked this question:
“Who knows what the winner wins at the Masters? I don’t because that’s not what it’s about.”
For the record, Tiger Woods won $2.07 million but it was the green jacket that came with it that mattered.
That’s what the PGA Tour would like the FedEx Cup to become – meaningful enough that regardless of how many dollar signs are attached, it’s the trophy and the achievement that outshine the eight-figure direct deposit.
“(The money) motivates a lot of people, but I think for me and my competitive spirit, I want to win the FedExCup for a lot of different reasons,” McIlroy said.
“Is money one of them? Yeah. Look, it would be nice to win on Sunday and be, oh, I’m $15 million richer, whatever it is. But at the same time, I’ll get more satisfaction from winning the golf tournament and playing well.”
Should it come down to a single putt on the 18th green Sunday afternoon with $15 million on the line, the money will be on everyone’s mind because it’s the biggest payday ever in golf. It’s part of what separates the FedEx Cup, an almost literal pot of gold that awaits the winner.
To Thomas, who has been sleeping on a two-stroke lead since his victory in the BMW Championship last Sunday in Chicago, the mind game of calculating what each stroke is worth was retired years ago.
“If I win the FedExCup this week, it’s not going to change my life,” Thomas said. “It’s unbelievable, and it’s an extremely substantial amount of money, and how FedEx has stepped up to take care of us players is crazy. It’s unbelievable. I’m sure 10 years ago I never would have thought that was possible, but I’m not going to change the way I live my life if I win that.
“Money has never driven me. I hope it never will. I play to win trophies and win championships and be the best player to ever walk the planet, and that’s all I play for. So money is a great consolation and it’s a great thing to have, but … it’s bizarre.
“I’ve never had a putt on the last hole of a tournament where like, man, if I make this, I finish solo second versus if I miss it, it’s a three-way tie for third or whatever. This is a $500,000 putt.”
When Thomas was beginning his professional career on the Web.com Tour, he received an exemption into the Memorial. He played well but double-bogeyed the last hole.
The next morning his mother sent him a text telling him the 6 he made on the 18th hole had cost him $42,000.
“I was like, Mom, if you ever send me a text like this again, I will delete your number. Don’t ever text me something like this,” Thomas said.
“I think she got a pretty good idea from the text I sent back to never bring it up again.”
Where money matters, Thomas said, is when he’s playing a friendly game with his buddies with a couple of hundred bucks on the line. Winning and losing there – reaching into his own pocket or someone else’s – feels different.
Tournament golf is business. Friendly golf is personal.
On the way to East Lake Wednesday morning, McIlroy found himself listening to a song called Middle Child by J. Cole. The song is about having money and what it means if you can’t share it with others.
McIlroy has been generous with his wealth, making particularly significant donations to help build cancer treatment centers for children in his native Northern Ireland. He has more than enough for himself to live as he pleases, but McIlroy has looked beyond himself.
“I think that’s one of the luxuries of having money is that you can help others that you love, and you can share it around, and it doesn’t all just have to be about you. That’s the cool thing,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy remembers the days after he turned pro when he would pop his debit card into an ATM and stare at his account balance as it ballooned, buying himself an expensive watch once he knew he could afford it.
Winning $15 million is enough to get his attention but it’s what comes with it that McIlroy wants more.
“You always want to be paid fairly for what you do, or you want to know you’re worth what your value is,” McIlroy said.
“But I guess at this point in my career, it’s not my most motivating factor or driving factor. … If I were to end my career and maybe sacrifice some commercial opportunities to say that I’d have won a few more tournaments, I’d probably make that sacrifice because that would give me more satisfaction than money that’s in the bank or an investment portfolio that I’m never going to see or never going to use.”
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