Golf’s obscene money list shows the sport is in danger of losing the plot

<span>Photograph: Brynn Anderson/AP</span>
Photograph: Brynn Anderson/AP

The trouble with Pointless answers is that you never meet any of the 100 people surveyed for each one. Still, the quizshow probably presents as valid an insight into the attitude of the British public as anything else in these zany times.

A few weeks ago, Alexander Armstrong flashed up famous faces with names relating to flowers. What happened next was rather galling for those who want golf to capture hearts and minds.

Just six of those asked identified Justin Rose: major champion, Englishman, Olympic gold medallist and a player who has received rather a lot of attention for his admirable establishment of a golf series for women. He has little cause to care what transpires on daytime television or his irrelevance compared to Lily Allen but this served as the latest stark reminder of the bubble within which golf operates.

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Viktor Hovland did not see fit to appear for a press conference in advance of the Hero World Challenge. This was strange, given he was the defending champion. Perhaps the Norwegian was busy counting his money; heading into the event in the Bahamas, he had collected $37,112,235 (roughly £29m) in 2023 PGA Tour earnings. He is a fantastic golfer and a lovely fella but is hardly a needle mover. His salary before endorsements would place him in the top 10 of Major League Baseball.

Golf is in serious danger of losing the plot, if that isn’t already the case. Stating sportspeople are overpaid is akin to pointing out Wednesday follows Tuesday yet the entitlement of golfers has become somewhat alarming. When Jon Rahm is linked with a switch to LIV, reportedly for hundreds of millions of dollars, the deal is instantly believable. This is what golf, a sport where once upon a time finding the bottom of the hole was key to everything, has become. Those within it – and not just players, this applies to managers, caddies, coaches – have a distorted sense of worth. This existed before LIV, which has only accelerated matters. Tensions exist within the PGA Tour because several of the rank and file believe they are underpaid. Pure sport, this is not.

Hovland’s wedge came in part from his share of the player impact programme, a convoluted scheme created by the PGA Tour when LIV and its Saudi Arabian riches were first circling. Rory McIlroy topped this year’s chart, which rewards players for bringing eyeballs to the tour, and pocketed $15m. Tiger Woods, who did not play between April and November, was paid $12m. Think of the Premier League handing Erling Haaland a hefty bonus for having the good grace to turn up for his work.

No amount of money at this stage makes a difference to McIlroy or Woods and the duo are the instantly identifiable faces of their sport but the scale of these payments is still regarded by many as obscene. “Pro golf is on a one-way street to nowhere,” the DP World Tour player Eddie Pepperell said. “Lost its mind, and I’ve lost my respect and love for it.” If the public also identify vulgarity, golf will have a serious problem.

Jordan Spieth, who was given $7m by the player impact programme, was somewhat bashful when assessing its meaning. “I think its goal was to help prevent players from accepting high-dollar Saudi offers, LIV offers,” he said. “If you’re going to see numbers that are thrown out at players now, a couple of specific players, it doesn’t really do that.

“I think that it was pretty unanimous, including from those of us who have significantly benefited from it, to taper it down and find a way to spread those funds elsewhere to support, ideally, fields, purses, so that you still could benefit from them individually but by finding the right sweet spot. I know it drops by half next year. I’m not sure what that will look like after that. Hopefully it won’t need to exist, I think is the best way to put it, and I think that makes everybody happy.”

Spieth’s point is backed up by tournament prize funds; the Players Championship is now worth $25m, the Phoenix Open $20m and humdrum tour stops have players joust for close to $9m.

Debate over whether or not golf balls should be “rolled back” is the epitome of tedium. At least it was, until McIlroy waded in. On Wednesday, the R&A will announce modifications to the ball to try to rein in the distance leading players can reach. This had been resisted, when originally mooted, by equipment manufacturers and some of McIlroy’s peers.

McIlroy is among those who think the ball need not be amended for anyone outside the elite level. “Bifurcation was the logical answer for everyone,” he said. “But yet again in this game, money talks.” Once again, it starts with a g and rhymes with creed. When the R&A outlines its plans, the bleating and whining from certain elements of the game will be all too typical with the bottom line, not the good of the sport, in mind.

The clock is now ticking on whether a deal can be closed out between golf’s established tours and the Saudi Public Investment Fund. The Fenway Sports Group has also made overtures about a partnership with the tour. Something like this is needed, not only to ward off whatever threats LIV may pose but to allow long-term sustainability. Golfers have never had it so good. This comes at a cost to reputations.

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