Are golf’s major champions underpaid? It’s not as crazy as it sounds

In earning $1.8 million for winning the recent U.S. Open, Jordan Spieth pocketed 12 1/2 times what Jack Nicklaus won on his biggest payday as a player. Of course, more than inflation has been at work in boosting golf purses since the Golden Bear won $144,000 on that momentous 1986 spring day at Augusta National.

Television has enriched PGA Tour purses and, by extension, a new generation of golfers.

In Nicklaus’ day, a $1.8 million purse was big news. Today, a champion takes home that much from a purse of $10 million at events such as the Masters, Players, U.S. Open, and PGA.

Big money, for sure, but is it equitable with other sports’ payouts?

In tennis, the 2015 French Open offered a total prize fund for men and women of more than $30 million. By comparison, the sum of the men’s and women’s U.S. Open golf purses will be $14 million.

The male and female tennis winners at Wimbledon this year will pocket more than $3 million. At tennis’ U.S. Open, the winners will receive even bigger slices from the richest of the sport’s four Grand Slam events, with a purse expected to top $40 million.

Comparing golf to tennis seems fair. The competitors in both sports are independent contractors, pay their own expenses and get paid depending on how well they perform. However, comparing golf purses with the money in the four major team sports – football, basketball, baseball and hockey – can get skewed.

The NBA recently signed a new TV deal for $24 billion that will go into effect in 2016. Under the NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement, the players will receive roughly 50 percent of all income. The team salary cap will jump from $66 million to potentially $90 million in the first year and eventually to $100 million.

In August 2013, the USGA signed a new TV contract with Fox that by all reports more than doubled the previous deal with NBC and averages about $100 million a year for golf’s governing body in the U.S., its territories and Mexico. With a few back-of-the-envelope calculations, it’s easy to conclude that Spieth and the other U.S. Open competitors were severely underpaid. That’s right: underpaid.

Consider this assumption, which one source familiar with tournament operations affirmed as reasonable: ticket sales, hospitality, merchandise sales and sponsorship deals generate enough money to conduct the U.S. Open. That would leave the pile of TV money untouched.

Cutting the $100 million in half for the USGA to continue to operate and then splitting the remaining $50 million between the association and the Open competitors would leave $25 million for the purse, from which the winner would receive about $4.5 million.

Of course, that breakdown comes after including only the domestic TV rights to the Open. The international rights are not even factored into the equation.

The world’s top golfers generally are satisfied with the purses, which have grown exponentially since Tiger Woods’ rise in the late 1990s: from $70.7 million in 1996 to $314 million this year. However, were golfers’ efforts undervalued before the Woods era, and are they now at least in the ballpark?

“There’s a lot of prestige that goes in here,” said Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open winner, of winning the national championship. “If you look at other sports and compare it to other sports, this is the biggest tournament we play. It’s very hard to complain about money.”

USGA president Tom O’Toole took a similar position when asked whether the $1 million increase in the U.S. Open purse this year could be attributed to the Fox TV deal.

“We’ve never had the U.S. Open be about the purse,” O’Toole said. “We want to be competitive. And, yes, we did enter into a wonderful new TV contract with our partners at Fox Sports. We want the purse to be competitive among other major championships. But we’ve never, ever made the U.S. Open about the purse.”

So, any relative economic value of the players should be secondary to the prestige of winning the U.S. Open, according to O’Toole.

Oddly, the PGA of America took a similar position years ago regarding the Ryder Cup, reasoning that the players compete for their country, and that should be enough motivation. In 1999, players asked for details regarding the money generated by the biennial matches between the U.S. and Europe. The PGA recognizes the importance of having the top Americans compete and now donates $2.75 million to charities designated by the U.S. captain and his 12 players.

On Wednesday, the R&A announced that it will increase its purse for next month’s Open Championship at St. Andrews. The 2015 prize fund of £6,300,000 (about $9.9 million) is an increase of £900,000 (about $1.4 million), with the winner to receive £1,150,000 (about $1.8 million).

“The Open is one of the world’s pre-eminent sporting events,” said Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive. “The championship represents the pinnacle for the world’s greatest golfers, and this increase is appropriate for an event with the Open’s global appeal.”

The bump by the R&A puts the Open Championship in line with the other three majors, which have purses of $10 million and a winner’s share of $1.8 million.

“You kind of want everything to move together,” Jim Furyk said of purse increases. “You want all the majors to move together and be in a similar area. You don’t want one to jump way out.”

That sounds reasonable, but the outlier has existed in the past on the PGA Tour, with no detrimental effects felt. In 1950, the World Championship of Golf offered a Tour-leading $50,000 purse, with the winner receiving $11,000. The next-highest purse that year was offered at the U.S. Open at Merion, where winner Ben Hogan won $4,000 of the $14,900 total.

“Commissioner (Tim) Finchem was on the front end of kicking them in the rear end of getting them up,” Furyk said of efforts to increase purses at the four majors. “He’s done a good job, collectively letting them know that they need to step it up.”

Ultimately, none of the majors would matter without the best players in the world competing, so why not pay them fair value or at least what they mean to the event?

“I love the way you put that, but I can’t say that,” Furyk said when posed the question. “But I love the way you said it.”

Major purses through the years

PGA Tour purses through the years

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