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Why the biggest golfers are raking in the money

As the PGA Tour and LIV Golf Tour fight for supremacy, the main beneficiaries are the big golfers with big paydays

Rory McIlroy after winning the Tour Championship. (AFP)

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Circa 2004. Gerry McIlroy, a bar steward in Belfast, placed a call to Labrokes—the UK’s leading bookmaker—to enquire about the odds of his son winning the Open Championship in the next decade. As the story goes, Gerry and three of his friends eventually ended up wagering £400—a significant sum of money for the working-class men—against 500-to-1 odds that Rory McIlroy, then just 15 years old, would lift the Claret Jug before he turned 26. 

In 2014, Gerry and friends cashed in on that bet, making £3,42,000, when the Irish phenomenon—by then the 10 to 1 favourite— won the Open Championship. Today, 12 years after joining the PGA Tour, McIlroy has racked up 21 wins on that Tour, and nine victories around the world, pocketing a cool $66 million that make Gerry’s winnings seem like small change.  

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It’s no small measure of McIlroy’s initial promise that despite such a stellar career record, the Ulsterman is routinely criticised for not realising his potential, or letting big victories slip out of his grasp. To be fair, it has appeared—especially when he choked while leading big events—that McIlroy did not share the golfing world’s confidence in his ability to get the job done. 

At the season-ending Tour Championship in the last week of August, McIlroy sent out an emphatic message to the world that he’s vanquished his demons. Sinking a 31-footer on the 15th hole of the final day’s play to tie the lead, McIlroy eventually prevailed over Scottie Scheffler—the world No. 1 golfer—to win the Tour Championship. The win propelled McIlroy to the top of the points table for the season and with it, the FedEx Cup. It’s the third time the Irishman has won golf’s biggest prize—a feat unrivalled since the Playoffs began. 

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McIlroy’s come-from-behind victory (he started six shots behind Scheffler) achieved something even more remarkable: infuse excitement and interest in the PGA Tour’s blighted FedEx Cup. And no, that’s not a harsh assessment of the PGA Tour’s season-ending playoffs. Ever since they were instituted, the Playoffs have not caught the fancy of the golf fan. In the early years, the rules were too complex and convoluted, making it near-impossible for a layman to get a sense of the contest. At other times, the winner was decided even before the last event took place, sabotaging any chance of an exciting finish to the season. 

At the end of the day, the Playoffs continue to matter only to the players and not to the fans. They don’t rival the prestige the Major Tournaments command. What makes the Playoffs significant for players is, well, money. McIlroy took home an unprecedented $18 million with the rest of the $75 million purse shared amongst the best players in the world. Or rather, in the field. Some of the best players in the world weren’t at the Tour Championship. The coterie of players who’ve signed up for the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour, were not allowed to compete in the Playoffs. The issue and validity of that move apart, there’s no denying that the absence of players like Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau dulled the sheen on the PGA Tour’s marquee tourney. 

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On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the competition has forced the PGA Tour to create greater incentive for players to stay under its wings. Recently, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced the introduction of a mini-series within the regular season that will pit the game’s top players against each other with bigger spoils on offer. With purses in the $20 to $25 million range, the events are slated to begin in 2023. The Tour’s Player's Impact Programme will now award $100 million to players who use social media effectively to reach out to fans.

The obvious question that comes to mind is why the PGA Tour did not introduce these changes unilaterally over the past few years. At least in that respect, the players have gained from the ongoing tussle. 

But there’s a thought that keeps coming back, and I wonder if it occurs to the top players who had to watch from the sidelines at the Tour Championship: the reason the FedEx Cup has never captured the imagination of golf fans is because it’s just about the money. And with no malice towards that circuit, the LIV Golf Tour’s biggest allure is also money. Is it any surprise that no one’s watching the Tour’s events? There’s certainly no hype, except headlines about the millions of dollars being won by players. 

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Perhaps that’s why the decision to stick with the PGA Tour has been easy for players like McIlroy: for the Irishman playing golf is about fulfilling his destiny—to be remembered as one of the game’s greats. At the age of 33, the FedEx Champion has, at best, a decade of his best golf ahead of him. 

While there will always be the occasional Phil Mickelson—a Major winner at 50—professional golf has firmly tilted in favour of younger players. Who do you think the oldest man in the field at the USPGA Tour’s season-ending Tour Championship was? That would be 49-year-old Adam Scott—a veteran by modern golf’s standards. Scott, arguably past his prime, fits the profile of a golfer who might be tempted to join the LIV Golf Tour: to maximise his earnings over the last few years of his career. 

Despite this obvious temptation Scott has decided to stick around and sees the changes being brought in by the PGA Tour as a vindication of that decision. “I think the hardest thing for the Tour is it’s trying to be all things to all people. It’s a very, very hard thing to do. It’s impossible to please everybody. They certainly can’t have everybody happy, but you’ve got to please someone,” he remarked. No one’s complaining, certainly not the players. 

Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer, golfer and television producer.

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