- Alistair Tait
The Meaning of (Professional) Golf
Updated: Nov 6, 2021
What are the men of the European Tour doing in Portugal this week? Why are the women of the Ladies European Tour teeing it up in Saudi Arabia? Why would World Wide Technology want to host a PGA Tour event in Mexico?
What are professional golfers being paid to do when they tee it up in the above events?
It’s an existential question fellow Woburn Golf Club member Meghan MacLaren was trying to deal with yesterday, as the screenshot below proves.
Meghan is one of the deepest thinkers currently playing professional golf; always worth a read. That much is obvious considering she would mull over her very existence in the first place. Many others would simply have said: to make screeds and screeds of money, stupid, and to hell with ontology!
Part of me wanted to tweet back and say, to sell cars, golf clubs and balls, help delivery companies increase market share, help regions of the world like Portugal and Mexico attract golfers/tourists. In short, act as a shill in this consumer driven world.
Wouldn’t most of us becomes shills for the chance to earn as much, more, for a week’s work than most people make in a year?
I’ve often asked myself why companies spend a fortune staging golf tournaments to transfer money into the back pockets of those skilled in guiding white balls around pleasant green fields. I once asked a company executive why he paid a fortune to sponsor a European Tour event, one with exorbitant appearance fees. He told me the company had metrics which measured the return on its investment, and it was worth the spend.
Others aren’t so lucky. I once turned up for a media day laid on by a new LET sponsor. I, and other golf writers, played a few holes with the star attraction, who partook in a press conference along with company executives and golf club owners to extol the new venture.
My post press conference experience told me the event wouldn’t last. As we snacked, I asked those at my table, about seven other journalists, to name the sponsor. Not one came up with the name.
The Cantor Fitzgerald Laura Davies Invitational only lasted one year. Sofia Grönberg-Whitmore defeated Trish Johnson in a playoff at Brocket Hall in 1999 to bank £45,000 and Cantor Fitzgerald decided that was it. There was no 2000 tournament. The financial company soon found other ways to spend its marketing money.
I knew the Schroder Senior Masters wasn’t long for this world when a senior executive asked me if I knew what business Schroders was in. He seemed delighted when I told him investments. Even more so because I had a Schroders Unit Trust at the time, perhaps the only customer in the Pro-am field. He tempered his delight with the words:
“You’re the first person here who knows what we do, and I’ve asked about 50 people.”
Needless to say, the 1998 Schroder Senior Masters at Wentworth was one and done.
While the above companies didn’t get much bang for their buck, others obviously do. Why else would they invest bucket loads of money into the game, pay seven figure appearance fees to Tiger Woods and others? Don’t think they do it because they think professional golfers deserve nice livings, or need an arena in which to display their considerable skills to the golfing public. They’re much more concerned with promoting their brands, entertaining important corporate clients. They choose golf because it’s arguably the one game that actually upholds the spirit of sport.
Those LET players in this week’s Aramco Saudi Ladies International might kid themselves they’re only there to compete for a $1 million prize fund. The Saudis Sheiks have other ideas. They want to put Saudi Arabia on the map as an international destination. Many call it “sportswashing” to cast attention away from Saudi Arabia’s reputation as one of the world’s most repressive regimes. They’re spot on. The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi didn’t exactly cast Saudi Arabia in a warm glow.
However, don’t think sportswashing hasn’t happened before. It has. Golf and golfers have a history of visiting countries with poor human rights records. Amnesty International reports on some destinations currently on the golfing calendar don’t make for palatable reading.
Perhaps the majors are the tournaments free of commercial interests, where the crème de la crème can display skills to entertain the public free from commercial pressures?
Let’s not bestow complete sainthood on the blue chip events. Major companies spend a lot of money to be associated with the game’s greatest events to promote their brands. Three of the nine majors have title sponsors, while the rest benefit from considerable corporate investment. The obvious benefit for a tournament like The Open is that all the profit goes back into the R&A’s remit of growing the game worldwide. Call that a win-win for golf.
Whichever way we cut it though, this world of golf, professional golf, is all part of that system we all belong to whether we like it or not: it’s called capitalism.
Hope that helps answer your question Meghan.
#JustSaying: “Sure the purses are obscene. The average worker, let’s say, makes $25,000 a year, while a golfer makes $25,000 for finishing 10th. Our values have departed somewhat.” Tom Watson in 1989