Last month, Max Homa offered his thoughts on the cruise ships of cash, some embarking from unseemly sources, coasting into professional golf. Amid a frenzy of reports, rumors, and comments from players about the Saudi-backed Super Golf League, the PGA Tour came to Riviera and it was the defending champ’s turn to testify on the matter.
“It’s an interesting dynamic we’ve got going,” Homa said. “Driving up to this golf course with memories of winning a golf tournament [where] Tiger Woods handed me a trophy, they don’t have that in a breakaway league. Money’s cool. People out here, some people play for the money, some people play for the love of it…. When I won this golf tournament, I made the most I’ve ever made in one lump, $1.67 million, and that’s not the part that I remember. That’s my take on it.”
The 2022 Players Championship purse is an unprecedented $20 million, $3.6 million of that going to the winner. Sums that would have seemed incomprehensible perhaps only five years ago. The total purse is up 33% from 2021, up 100% since 2015, and the $20-million figure is expected to be significantly more than every major championship that will be held in 2022. Every player who finishes in the top 20 this year will earn more than the $250,000 purse that existed at the first Players Championship in 1974.
In the past, the PGA Tour has attempted to buy its way to dominance. Whether it was the creation of the FedEx Cup or the fattening of the Players Championship purse, the Tour used money to convey importance. Those four championships—the Players and the three playoff events—currently make up the four largest purses in golf, and yet the major championships are still the highlights of the season.
Recently, the PGA Tour has found itself no longer fighting for importance in relation to other major golf events but rather in a battle to retain top players. The Saudi-backed Super Golf League emerged as a serious threat to day-to-day PGA Tour life, with the understood peril that they could outspend Ponte Vedra. A financial race that the PGA Tour used to win with ease was suddenly a competition in which they could be the underdog, especially when it seemed some sort of monetary return on investment (a return on sportswashing is a separate matter) was less a concern of the Saudis.
In a way, the emergence of the SGL may finally show the PGA Tour that money isn’t always the end-all-be-all, especially as it relates to the Players Championship. To this point, on Tuesday, the “legacy not leverage” comment from Jay Monahan, likely a prepared zinger workshopped by a communications army, took the headlines. This week’s $3.6-million top prize is staggering and will certainly catch the attention of many, but that in itself doesn’t mean an event is important.
Asked in his Tuesday press conference about what elevates the Players aside from the purse, 2019 champion Rory McIlroy paused in thought. “This is where the PGA Tour can showcase what they have,” he said. ”Obviously the prize fund is huge, and that’s great, but there’s a lot of other things that go into the event to make it feel the way it is and make it feel special.” Later, Xander Schauffele touched on the same subject: “A lot of people want to win this tournament, not just because there is a $20 million purse, but just because it’s considered our fifth major, and majors are sacred to us. Every year we come here the stands seem to be bigger, everything seems to be bigger…. This is a very important week for us.”
Anyone who has been to the Players or has watched it on TV knows that McIlroy and Schauffele are right. The PGA Tour does a phenomenal job not only providing an elite tournament for the players but also creating a highly enjoyable festival for the fans. For the pros, Players week brings nearly major-championship levels of pressure. There is serious cachet that comes with being a Players champion. Year in and year out, the PGA Tour creates an environment that breeds that kind of intensity. For the fans on site, the tournament is equally special. Pete Dye’s routing at TPC Sawgrass offers opportunities to jump from group to group, gathering points for vendors and community elements to set up shop, and a finishing stretch that creates all the drama you want. The Players Championship is more than the biggest purse in golf. It’s an experience, unique in professional golf and not recreated elsewhere.
There is no doubt that the PGA Tour will keep increasing purses in the future. This is a player-run organization with the primary goal of satisfying its members. Starting in 2022, the new media rights deal is reported to be worth roughly $700 million per year, and the Tour will likely increase purses as it sees fit (read: a lot). But as it relates to creating the best golf tour in the world and putting on entertaining events, money isn’t everything and never has been—as the Ryder Cup reminds us every other year.
In 10 years, we won’t remember the number on the paycheck this week’s winner will receive. But we will remember the pressure he overcame and the field he conquered. We’ll remember that he is a Players champion.