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Two professional golfers found out late one Sunday afternoon this year that they had tied for the lead at the end of a four-day, 72-hole tournament, one of the almost weekly events on the calendar of the Professional Golfers' Association. A sudden-death playoff was set up to determine the champion and, ostensibly, who would get the winner's share of the purse. As the golfers repaired to the first tee, a PGA official who was helping to supervise the tournament asked the two,' 'What are you boys going to do about the money?"
"I don't know, what do you want to do?" one of the two players said to the other rather hesitantly.
"It doesn't make any difference to me," the other replied. "What the heck," said the first, "let's split." With that, they teed off, followed by a gallery that incorrectly assumed it was seeing two men in a tense athletic battle over the big difference between first-and second-place prize money.
One of the two quickly won the playoff and thus became that week's champion on the professional circuit, and they each went away with the same amount of money, having combined the first and second prizes and split the sum into equal parts. The bookkeeping was elementary. The winner wrote out a check to the loser for the difference between his first-place check and half the sum of the combined prizes. When it comes time to make out his income tax return next year, he will declare the full amount of the winner's share as income and then deduct as a business expense the amount he paid to the loser. No one except the Internal Revenue Service will be the wiser.
Last week SPORTS ILLUSTRATED asked those who knew the most about the subject, the players themselves, and discovered playoff purse-splitting is an astonishingly common practice. Ten major tournaments have ended in playoffs this year, and it is safe to say those who tied agreed to split the purse in at least half of them. The sport's biggest names, including Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, freely admit to having practiced splitting and see nothing wrong with it. The PGA itself not only condones it, but occasionally abets it. It has been going on for 50 years—and has been kept carefully quiet all the while. The golfers argue, rightfully, that they still play their very hardest for two reasons: first, they get bonuses of several thousand dollars from the commercial concerns they represent if they win; and, second, their desire to win a championship is so intense that the title far outweighs the cash at stake. This is unquestionably true.
But there is a strong argument that secret purse-splitting is still a deception on the public—a fraud. The U.S. Golf Association (which runs the U.S. Open) thinks so, and outlaws it. Most of the hometown sponsors of PGA tournaments think so. They have heard whispers about it, but say they would be shocked if it actually happened at their events. "If they do it they are cheating the spectators," said the co-chairman of Hartford's Insurance City Open last week. Finally, the spectators themselves think so—when somebody tells them it is going on.
The ramifications of purse-splitting are widespread. For example, the administrators of professional golf are aware of how big money captures the imaginations of the game's new fans. The PGA increasingly emphasizes golfers' earnings, proudly putting out a weekly ranking of the top 10 money winners. It knows, of course, that the list is not exactly accurate, but it doesn't seem to mind misleading the public.
Playoff purse-splitting has been one of the best-kept secrets in professional sport. Around the fringes of tournament golf it had been assumed and gossiped about for years, but the public was never exposed to the practice. It became so common that most tour pros accepted it as a facet of their lives, no more surprising or shameful than an occasional hooked tee shot. If the players involved wanted to split, they split.
At this year's U.S. Open, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus did not split the first- and second-place prizes of $17,500 and 510,500 respectively, but only because they didn't want to. They didn't even realize that this was the one tournament where the fine print of the entry form contained the USGA's pledge reading: "I have not entered into or will not enter into any arrangement whereby I could have a financial interest in any other competitor's prize money...." They had automatically assumed they could have split if they had chosen to.
Joseph C. Dey Jr., the executive director of the USGA and, as such, the leading voice on the legalities and moralities of golf in this country, takes a very firm position on this subject. The other day he told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, "A player in any sport, whether it be golf or some other one, should do his best on his own and his best all the time. We feel if a player has an interest in another player's performance the opportunity is present for things to happen that should not happen in any sport."