he PGA Tour members’ favorite homily is that they eat only what they kill, and that, unlike other athletes, they must perform in order to be compensated. It’s never been true, at least not for the best players—sponsors reward greatness but don’t penalize players for missing cuts—and certainly not in this era of the Player Impact Program and the upcoming guaranteed money events, which will compensate regardless of on-course outcomes.
Professional golf is a club whose members can reminisce about their glory days long after they’ve retired and begun collecting Social Security checks. It is for this reason that the PGA Tour Champions exists. It’s a competition disguised as an honorarium. Only the middle and bottom echelons of the PGA Tour live off the birdies they make. Some, on the other hand, would like to see those guys get even hungrier.
This week, Billy Horschel was asked how the PGA Tour can react to the danger posed by the Saudi-backed Super Golf League, which has given top-tier players guaranteed income. He proposed cutting the number of fully exempt players from 125 to 100 per season, as well as reducing the number of graduates from the Korn Ferry Tour. Horschel believes that the result would be a more competitive circuit.
“Guys aren’t content with finishing 90th on the PGA Tour every year and earning a million dollars,” he explained.
Aspire to be the best players on the PGA Tour. “If we change the way money is distributed so the top 30, 40 men get paid well and the rest of us don’t, that really drives guys to perform their best.”
Horschel was a vocal opponent of “handouts.”
“We reward top performance, fantastic golf, not mediocrity,” he explained.
In addition to highlighting a fundamental difficulty the PGA Tour confronts in its fight against the Saudis, Horschel’s words illustrate a fundamental flaw in the structure of a member-led organization.
The Tour’s primary responsibilities are to provide playing opportunities for its members and to provide the finest possible fields for its sponsors. Engineering the former has greater leeway than ensuring the latter. Any decrease in exempt membership has a direct influence on the quality of the 40-odd fields it is required to produce each year. Especially when celebrities stay at home, resulting in a glorified member-guest, as we saw in Bermuda last month. As a result, the Tour recognizes what Horschel is missing: any approach to better recompense top performers must not come at the price of the rest of the field. The PGA Tour isn’t a believer in trickle-down economics.
Horschel’s claim that the PGA Tour rewards mediocrity is neither surprising nor new. The truth is that this has always been the case with the Tour. The only thing that has changed is the attractiveness of mediocrity.
The same formula has decided the distribution of prize money since 1983, with the exception of a small modification two years ago: 79 percent of a tournament’s payout goes to the top 20 finishers; the champion gets 18 percent; and those who make the cut but finish towards the bottom get around 0.2 percent. In 1988, Curtis Strange became the first player to break the million-dollar threshold for a single season’s prize money. 124 players earned at least $1 million in the 2020-2021 season, excluding bonuses. In 1988, the average prize money was around $260,000, which is roughly similar to around $260,000 now. The average salary for 20-21 (without bonuses) was $1,485,055.
I texted Strange to ask what he would have answered if he had been told in 1988 that his $1 million would one day only be enough to put him in 124th position on the wealth list. “Play better!” he says wryly.
Tyler McCumber was the 124th and last player to earn a seat on the Tour’s millionaires yacht last season. The world No. 376 won $1,025,909 after placing second in the Dominican Republic and then tying for sixth at the Sanderson Farms Championship a week later. In his other 23 starts, he had no top ten finishes and 15 missed cuts. To be clear, McCumber’s haul was not a “freebie.” He worked hard for every penny. However, stats like those above explain why players like Horschel, who earned just over $4 million in a season in which he won one World Golf Championship and placed second in another, believe some players are paid too much for too little.
It’s frequently difficult to distinguish when mediocrity ends and challenges, whether physical, mental, or psychological, begin. It’s impossible to presume that everyone who finishes towards the bottom of the FedEx Cup rankings isn’t trying hard enough. Horschel, on the other hand, has a good point.
Maybe the PGA Tour’s product would be better if there were fewer exempt players with guaranteed slots and more Monday qualifiers, where guys earn their way to the first tee on Thursday. That, however, is not going to happen anytime soon. The four players on the Tour’s board of directors, as well as the 16 members of the Players Advisory Council, come from many walks of life. Johnson Wagner and Peter Malnati are seated close to Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm. Who among them is most likely to vote in a way that will have a negative influence on themselves or someone they have to see every week in the locker room?
The Tour’s challenge isn’t how to diminish the ranks or wages of lesser mortals, but how to secure bigger rewards for those who shift the needle—a fluid group, but not so fluid as to include Horschel, who is immune to accusations of self-interest in his public statements. Aside from non-score bonuses, the PGA Tour has just two options: create guaranteed money tournaments for elite fields, or increase the purses in existing events that attract the stars. It is not necessary to punish the rank and file in order to reward the needle-movers.