Originally created 03/16/05

Elite players being shown the money just to show up



ORLANDO, Fla. - Was it Captain Louis Renault, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig or PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem who feigned the greatest indignation when confronted by the blatant truth?

"I'm shocked, shocked to find that (insert taboo activity) is going on here!"

Gambling ... steroids ... appearance fees ... whatever.

On a golf tour where the most prominent Buick endorser coincidentally plays a lot of Buick-sponsored events and the most prominent Ford endorser makes every effort to play in the (surprise!) Ford Championship, the issue of appearance fees made a curious rise to the top of the topics of discussion this week.

Two things brought this old issue to a head.

The first was a thinly-veiled sponsor "outing" that paid a reported $150,000 to each of four prominent international PGA Tour regulars the Monday before they all played at Doral.

The second was a purloined letter published by Golf World in which the megalomaniacal sports agency IMG offered up an a la carte buffet of marquee names for similar outings before other starving tour events. The not-so-subtle implication was the paid guests would be grateful enough to stick around for the week and play in whatever tournament they usually found little reason to ever show up for previously.

This, of course, reeks of the pay for play sort of payola that is strictly forbidden on the PGA Tour. Unless you can creatively disguise it. Like inviting everybody to fly free to the next event in Ireland if you play in the 84 Lumber Tournament.

"There were ways around it before," said tour veteran Scott Hoch, an old-school guy who prefers a harder line on appearance fees and its offenders.

There are many ways, like lavish luxury loaner cars, extravagant gift baskets or deep discounts at local retailers. Tour players have been bought for years like blue-chip players in recruiting battles.

What is the big deal?

PGA Tour players are independent contractors who operate in their own self interests. Shouldn't they be able to negotiate their own deals with tournaments and sponsors eager to entice them?

The problem arises when the tournaments and sponsors get pitted against each other beyond the normal scale. In a market where TV revenue might decrease, can the PGA Tour stand the strain of additional revenue drains on purses by sponsors who might have to pony up an additional $500,000 or even $1 million to get a few good names in their field?

This type of payola scam only helps the rich get richer at the expense of the rank-and-file. It can create a mercenary environment that turns off fans who prefer the facade that golfers only get paid for performing.

"The tour is not built for the top guys," Hoch said. "The bad thing about our sport is most people are looking out for themselves and not what's best for everybody."

That's why this overt pay-for-play issue really rubs a lot of people on the PGA Tour the wrong way. So much so that they'll probably create more strict barriers to protect the integrity of the performance-based industry.

"There's no way they should be paying me to play my own tour," Hoch said. "You shouldn't have to be bought to come to a course."

Sadly, these players do get bought in many little ways. And the appearance fee issue will soon retreat back under the table where it and the PGA Tour have peacefully coexisted for years.

The Buicks and the Fords will get what they want in other ways.

Songwriter Marti Jones so eloquently summed up the degrees people will go to prostitute themselves.

"Some sell their bodies for dimes while others marry for the houses and the jewelry. It's a real thin line for what you charge for your time."

One way or another, the thin green line will go on.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.