Since turning professional in 1996, Joe Ogilvie has won exactly one PGA Tour event, the 2007 U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. He has finished second three times, been third twice and out of the top 10 in 313 of the 338 events he has started. Ogilvie is ranked 149th on the 2011 money list, his best showing in eight events a 13th-place finish at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February. The quintessential journeyman, he has found a certain dignity—and $9,330,429 in prize money—in honest mediocrity.
Unaffected and exceptionally humble, Ogilvie wears his 37 years as lightly as his size-nine FootJoy Icons. What he lacks in talent, he makes up for in pluck and perseverance. And cuts. Ogilvie has survived into the weekend in 192 of those 338 events. (He's four for eight this year.) If, as planned, Ogilvie quits the Tour in five or six years, his cut-making ability will have provided a comfortable living in his dotage. He looks to walk away from the game with a feather bed of a pension, totaling at least $2 million. "I don't know my balance to the penny," says the onetime Duke economics major, "but I know it within $100."
The Tour plan is a weird bit of machinery. It most benefits the already prosperous, promising to pay players who have made a bundle an even bigger bundle when they retire. Because players are considered independent contractors, not employees, of the nonprofit and tax-exempt Tour, then commissioner Deane Beman and tax lawyer Victor F. Ganzi designed the plan in 1983 as a deferred compensation scheme. At the start, $1 million was funneled to the fund.
Though the original idea has been tweaked and retweaked, the Tour still uses a convoluted formula to determine earnings for retired players—with some benefits available as early as age 45 and deferrable until 60 if a player stays active on the Champions tour. Current funding is based on performance: position in the FedEx Cup standings and the number of times a player makes it through to the weekend. Last year the PGA Tour contributed $12 million to the cuts scheme and $18.5 million to the FedEx Cup.
The plan is a bonanza for those who are good enough to stay on the Tour for five years. Play in at least 15 events annually over that period, and you're guaranteed a payout. Play and play well, and you're rewarded with contributions of about $3,800 per cut made. That figure doubles for every cut made after number 15. "Any payment a player gets is earned through competition," says Ron Price, the Tour's CFO.
Really successful players clean up, which is ironic. Marginal golfers, who you'd figure might need the loot a lot more, get little or nothing. Old-timers from previous eras—even stars—are often left out in the cold too. Tax law mandates that the plan make contributions only for active players. That's largely why the Champions tour launched a program for older golfers.
"The predominant attitude on today's Tour is that things are great, don't rock the boat, and if you want a bigger slice of the pie, play better," says one active player who requested anonymity. The plan, which by the end of 2010 had grown to $655 million in total assets, is sort of a George W. Bush administration model, and indeed, the vast majority of players on the Tour are Republicans.
The pension plans of every other major sports league seem modeled on the kind of New Deal entitlements that the GOP seeks to curtail. The programs of Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL were devised as safety nets for players who didn't earn big salaries or have long careers.
In baseball, which in 1947 became the first pro sport to establish a pension, players need only 43 days of major league service to qualify for an annual benefit of roughly $34,000. Even a single day on an active roster earns lifetime health-care coverage. Players need 10 years in the game to become fully vested, at which point the yearly disbursement grows to $100,000.
Though hockey's plan was created in 1948, the benefits didn't amount to much until the 1990s. (Gordie Howe, a 23-time NHL All-Star, gets $14,000 a year.) Today, players who reach 160 games earn a pension of $45,000.