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Such is the regularity with which golf’s ‘Breaking News’ klaxon has been deployed of late, you’d be forgiven for having missed a few newsworthy items.
On or near the top of that list is the USGA’s decision to increase the prize money for the US Open to $20million – a record purse for a major and a $2.5million bump on the 2022 bounty.
The top three finishers at Los Angeles Country Club – Wyndham Clark, Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler – each trousered more than a million dollars. Every player who finished inside the top-36 went home with a six-figure cheque.
To give that some context, it was only in 1985 that the winner won more than $100,000 for the first time. Now, you can assure yourself of such a windfall before the leaders even tee off.
The hike in prize money moved the US Open ahead of the other three men’s majors. The Masters paid out $18million in April, with the US PGA putting up $17.5million last month. The $14million on offer at The 150th Open last summer, suddenly looks rather paltry by comparison and leaves the R&A in an invidious position as it budgets for Royal Liverpool next month.
However, as eye-watering as the US Open payout is relative to its major peers, it is no greater than the riches on offer in both the PGA Tour’s elevated events and LIV Golf’s regular season tournaments. Earlier this year, The PLAYERS Championship even poked its purse to $25million.
This week, there will as much money to be made from the Travelers Championship as has ever been available at a major championship.
Last Wednesday, Mike Whan, the chief executive of the USGA, acknowledged the challenge he and his team have faced in making sure the US Open remains economically competitive.
“We understand that purses can be relative, and in order to be big we have to understand what else is going on in the world, and we do,” he said.
He insists they’re “not in a chase to be the biggest cheque.” Still, though, it’s still an intriguing mare’s nest.
On the one hand, you would like to believe that money is an ancillary reward for winning a major, that the opportunity to define oneself with the same label used to order the absolute greats of the game would be far more meaningful and desirable than any fiscal metric.
However, that would be extremely naive. If events of the last year have demonstrated anything, it’s that not every golfer is motivated by winning majors. Some just want to be filthy rich.
And so without at least attempting to keep capital pace, where might that leave the majors a generation from now?
Fortunately for those who care more about the history of the game than the readies, the organisations running the four marquee men’s events are extremely wealthy. Augusta National Golf Club, the PGA of America, the USGA, the R&A – they all have deep pockets.
They can also count on a catalogue of commercial partners whose inward investment helps to offset their significant outgoings. Brands such as Rolex, HSBC, Mastercard, UPS, American Express, Cisco and Deloitte all pay a premium for a tether to the game’s biggest events.
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 19, 2023
Regardless, it’s reasonable to wonder how long they’ll be able to keep pace with the pecuniary insanity.
As an example, next month’s Open will reportedly have several thousand fewer grandstand seats than were available when the championship last visited Hoylake in 2014. That’s not a coincidence. A seated customer is less likely to be a paying spectator.
It’s in the R&A’s best interests to have people on their feet and moving around the property where there’s a higher likelihood they’ll indulge in discretionary spend. A pint here, a T-shirt there… it all adds up, keeping the wheels of industry turning at a lucrative clip. Why else do you think the television rights for the championship are sold to the highest bidder and not given away free-to-air?
So long as there is scope to spread the cost – through increased revenue from partners or by raising the price of admission and the like – the probability is that the game’s richest players will keep getting richer.
There’s never been a better time than right now to be a professional golfer, but that was also true 30 years ago and will, most likely, be the case another 30 years from now.
As success increasingly becomes measured by the superficiality of dollars and not the irresistible shimmer of trophies, the lines separating wealth, fulfilment and acclaim are becoming less and less distinguishable from one another.
Just my two cents.
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