No event has done more for a sport than the Ryder Cup has done for pro golf. As the biennial matches between the U.S. and Europe have blossomed into an eagerly anticipated celebration of pure sport—the best against the best for pride and glory, nothing more—golf has enjoyed unprecedented popularity. While other sports exalt players who say they would play for nothing, Ryder Cuppers actually do, and they extol the experience as the highlight of their careers.
Against this backdrop, the peevish pay-us-or-else stance taken by David Duval and Tiger Woods, a position they say is shared by prospective teammates, is unseemly, unreasonable and unreal. While the average Joe gets all tingly precisely because Ryder Cuppers don't get paid, the two best players in the game—even before Monday night's boondoggle on ABC they had won nearly $6 million this year—appear to be grubbing for money. Woods complains that "everybody is being compensated but us." Duval puts a sarcastic edge on his carping, saying, "A stipend of $5,000 each? I just might take that money and retire. And we're not being used?" Did they really say that? Are they really so shockingly out of touch with their sport's fan base?
Yes, the Ryder Cup has become a huge commercial enterprise, and I agree that the players, who are the show, should get a piece of the action. Here's the news flash: They already do. Ryder Cuppers are indirectly remunerated in many ways. Most of them collect incentive bonuses in their endorsement contracts for making the team, and everyone is guaranteed at least $25,000—last-place money—just for showing up at the Aug. 26-29 $5 million NEC Invitational in Akron, the new World tour event held exclusively for members of the Ryder and Presidents Cup teams. Finally, by making the team, a player is designated one of the game's elite, which has untold residual value.
Duval and Woods say it's not right that the PGA of America profits by their sweat, but the truth is that the PGA isn't greedily pocketing a Ryder Cup bonanza. A nonprofit organization, the PGA pours the proceeds into programs like the First Tee and the National Minority College Championship. Meanwhile, millions go back to the Tour, which puts the money into tournament purses and the player retirement fund. Granted, the Tour gives members of the Presidents Cup team a larger stipend and a check for each player's favorite charity, but the Tour can afford to do that. It has plenty of sources of revenue. The PGA has to make its nut at the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, which, by the way, was a money-losing turkey for decades.
Duval and Woods are wrongheaded in taking the PGA to task, but I think that has more to do with age than avarice. Duval is a straight shooter who publicly said what more politic players are saying privately. An independent sort, he rails against any institution that tells him he must not only play but also win. His response has been to write off the Ryder Cup as a meaningless exhibition. I've heard that view expressed before, but never from someone who hasn't played in a Cup.
Woods's issues run a little deeper. He was offended when the PGA wouldn't allow his mother inside the ropes at Valderrama along with the wives and girlfriends of his teammates, and he resented having to attend the black-tie functions that were jammed in after the long, weather-delayed rounds in Spain. His criticism of the Ryder Cup smacks of payback. The incongruity is that Woods prides himself on being a match-play warrior who's at his best when the pressure is greatest—the very essence of the Ryder Cup. Woods also always says he's not in golf for the money, but he'll have a hard time convincing anyone of that now.
At first blush, the comments of Duval and Woods seemed explosive, but wiser heads jumped in last week to defuse them. I expect to see compromises on stipends, charitable contributions and mandatory functions, but no way in hell is a boycott of the Ryder Cup imminent, as Duval suggested. Tom Lehman, who is still fighting to make the U.S. team, speaks for the majority of players when he says, "I would pay to play in the Ryder Cup."
As I have already argued in this space ("Bailing on the Ryder Cup," July 12), Lehman's sentiment is less widely held due to the changing nature of pro golf, but whining about money is bad not only for the future of the Ryder Cup but also for golf. It's messing with the game's special mojo.
Let's hope that the hammering Duval and Woods are taking will teach them that the game is bigger than they are.