Golf has reached the eye-watering end of the season in the United States. By Sunday night, one man in a baseball cap will walk off the 18th green in Atlanta $10 million richer. This week is the final event in the FedEx Cup play-offs, a four-week season-within-a-season on the American Tour in which a total of $67 million is up for grabs for the top 125 players. Not a bad reward for a sunny afternoon trying to put a white ball in a hole in fewer strokes than everyone else. Being a golfer is one of the few jobs where the less work you do the richer you become. As Alan Partridge in his sports interviewing days put it to one of the world’s finest players, ‘So, Seve Ballesteros, only 63. Not very good is it? Everyone else has got a lot more.’
For most of the players this week, the money really doesn’t matter — an exception can be made for Henrik Stenson, the Swede who is having the season of his life after almost going bankrupt when he trusted his money to Allen Stanford.
Even a mediocre golfer can live like a king in America. It used to be the adage in golf that you drive for show and putt for dough. Now you get immense riches just for showing up. Last season, you had to get down to 100 on the US money list before you found someone who hadn’t won $1 million over the year. This season a 49-year-old journeyman like Jeff Maggert has won $1 million despite finishing outside the top 30 in 18 of the 20 events he has contested.
As a format, the FedEx Cup, now in its seventh year, is exciting. Those 125 are whittled down over three weeks to 100, 70 and eventually 30 players, who compete in the season-ending finale in Atlanta. Some big egos get pricked along the way. Rory McIlroy, and Lee Westwood, both of them recent world No. 1s, failed to make the final 30 this year. Neither of them will go hungry — they have earned many millions from golf in the US over their careers, and that’s before you add in the massive endorsements a world No. 1 can attract — but it must niggle their pride that they will not be among the season’s elite in Atlanta.
There has been something of a Greek tragedy about McIlroy’s season. After a flirtation with Nike, changing clubs to the US manufacturer named after the god of victory in a deal said to be worth $100 million, he has been beset by Hubris. In 2012, he won five times; this year he has won zip. Still, he has a nice set of new clubs and the pleasure of waking up next to Caroline Wozniacki.
This is the problem with the FedEx Cup. Who in the long run will remember the winners? Two years ago, Bill Haas took the $10 million — but he has never finished in the top ten of a major and he has never played in the Ryder Cup. He has been set up for life by playing golf but barely registers as a footnote in the history of his sport. It’s like a cricketer earning squillions in the Indian Premier League but never playing in Tests — or Gareth Bale raking it in in Madrid but not playing at the World Cup.
It was a century ago that Walter Hagen won his first US Open. The American is thought to have been the first person to earn a million dollars from playing sport for a living. But what history most remembers about Hagen is that he was good when it counted. Only Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have won more than his 11 majors — and the Masters, one of the four majors now contested each year, did not start until Hagen was 42. When history reflects on golf in 2013, it will be Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson and Jason Dufner, the four major winners, who are judged the wealthiest, not the man with the enormous cheque.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.
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