PGA Golfers Aren’t Allowed To Play When And Where They Want, But There’s A Solution

Golfers this Sunday at the Players Championship will divvy up $20 million in winnings. That’s a one-third increase over last year, and it isn’ due to inflation. “Over the past year,” said a Golfweek article, “the PGA Tour has combated a potential rival golf league by increasing the money players can earn through elevated purses.”

The Tour is feeling the heat, but golfers want more than bigger purses. They want the freedom to make their own choices. “We should be able to play where we want to play,” said Rory McIlroy in December. Right now, McIlroy and his colleagues can’t do that, but there are ways for players to effect changes to PGA’s rules strictly limiting their choices of when and where to play.

For instance, the PGA Tour strictly forbids pro golfers from teeing off in North American tournaments that occur at the same time as the PGA’s own, which consume 45 weeks of the year. Golfers can only play in international tournaments with a waiver from Commissioner Jay Monahan, who generally hands out just three per player per year. These often come with strings attached, like obligations to play in specific U.S. events in the future.

The Tour’s strategy has been to thwart competition in every way possible. If golfers can’t participate in events sponsored by other leagues, then the Tour doesn’t have to raise its purses or offer other incentives to get players to participate. This lack of competition and absence of an effective bargaining unit for players are major reasons that golfers, on average, are the lowest-paid professional athletes in a major sport in the U.S., despite the fact that the sport is supported by a fervent (and wealthy) fan base that advertisers love.

The restrictions apply to golfers even though they are independent contractors, rather than employees like football, baseball, or basketball players. Golfers pay their own expenses, and those without hefty endorsement contracts can find themselves in the red with a string of bad tournaments.

By contrast, other professional athletes get annual minimums. An NBA player in his second year is guaranteed $1,489,000, and the recent agreement between Major League Baseball and its players’ association set a first-year minimum salary of $720,000; a veteran golfer is guaranteed nothing.

I’ve pointed out elsewhere that while the best athletes make multiple millions, the majority of those who make it to the top of their profession spend only a brief and tenuous period competing, and when they leave they have only a modest nest egg — or none at all.

In addition, sponsors of domestic tournaments can’t offer appearance fees as incentives. Golfers – again, unlike football, baseball, and basketball players – get paid solely according to how they finish in events even though some of the biggest draws on the course and TV aren’t the biggest money-winners. For instance, Rickie Fowler has never won a major tournament and last year ranked 119th on the Tour winnings list, but the fans love him. He has 3.7 million social media followers and is the seventh most popular PGA golfer, by one survey.

Why haven’t more players been vocal about the PGA Tour’s anti-competitive policies? One reason is that PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan can destroy their livelihoods. He recently threatened players with lifetime bans if they play for competing tournaments by citing a rule that says, “Public comments that…will harm the reputation or financial best interest of the PGA Tour…shall be considered conduct unbecoming a professional,” for which the penalty can be “permanent disbarment.”

But there are remedies. Other sports have their own player associations, and the four major associations have each made it a priority to ensure that marginal players get higher salaries, better pensions, and additional job security. Golfers could band together in a similar organization to assert their own rights or organize in a less formal way to insist on changing the rules. Monahan himself admitted in a recent interview that “the rules and regulations of the PGA Tour have been written by the players,” so the players can alter them.

The players can also apply pressure to the Tour’s 10-person Policy Board, which is chaired by New York lawyer Ed Herlihy and includes Randall Stephenson, executive chairman of AT&T, and four active players. One of them is McIlroy, who opined that the Tour’s management needs to be more transparent and not be “as closed a shop.”

Another sort of pressure is already being applied: With an infusion of $300 million from LIV Golf Investments, the Asian Tour is offering substantially improved purses. There are reports that LIV, headed by Greg Norman, and other groups are discussing exciting new formats, including team play.

Alden Abbott, former general counsel of the Federal Trade Association, wrote recently that a ban would trigger a “slam-dunk antitrust lawsuit,” but it doesn’t have to come to that. The players have the power to take back control of the PGA Tour and change the rules to make it serve them, rather than exploit them.