Golfs biggest payday

Written by meraj shah | Updated: Sep 29 2013, 09:15am hrs
Henrik Stensons remarks at the press conference after he won the season-ending Tour Championship, and with it, the PGA Tours FedExCup earlier this month, were a telling validation of the championship trophy in the world of golf. In effect, what Stenson said was simply that being the FedEx champion meant much more to him than the money he won. For the record, Stenson pocketed $1.44 million for winning the last of the four playoff eventsthe Tour Championshipwhich propelled him to the top-of-the-points standing of the FedExCup, which, in turn, brought him an eye-popping $10-million bonus. That rounds up to a tidy $12.88 million if you include the $1.44 million he cashed in for winning the second event of the playoffsthe Deutsche Bank Championship (also this month). To fully comprehend the gravitas of Stensons seemingly innocuous statement, consider that the Swede has won just over $17 million in his entire career on the European Tour since he joined it in 1997. Thats a lot of money, even for a millionaire professional golfer, to make in one month.

Secondly, Stenson didnt win the true test of golfthe British Openso elevated a tournament that its referred to simply as The Open. Nor did he win the US Open or any of the other major championships, which are considered the Holy Grail in professional golf. He won the FedExCupa seven-year-old championship title, which culminates with a season-ending cornucopia of events, and which has been squarely panned in the media in the past for being ineffectual and convoluted. This format, similar to the one in place for American Football, awards points to players throughout the year based on their performances in incorporated tournaments on the PGA Tour with only the top 125 entering the season-ending playoffs. The winner of the Cup is largely determined by how players fare in these four playoff events. Simple enough, except that the point system has been revamped by the Tour thrice in the last six years because it was flawed in a number of ways: Exposed most embarrassingly in 2009 when Vijay Singh had enough points to wrap up the title, even before the last event had taken place, thereby depriving the Tour Championship of any drama. Even in later years, the sheer complication of the point system had fans and players scratching their heads, leading to a lack of build-up and interest in the playoffs. With credit to the PGA Tour, this has since been largely rectified. So much so that being the FedEx champion actually means more to Stenson than the millions hes pocketed.

Of course, Stenson is also the first European to win this all-American affair. Stenson is best known for two things. The first is the prodigious speed the Swede swings his golf club at, and the second is the feel-good story of the two comebacks he has made in professional golf after plummeting down the world rankings. The first was in 2003 when he fell to 621 in the world and his second slump began in 2009 with a series of unfortunate events that, in retrospect, give some insight into his philosophical comment about money. The Swede had invested a significant fortune in an investment company run by the now-jailed banker Alan Stanford. The Ponzi scheme snowballed into an infamous financial scandal and took with it a big chunk of Stensons savings.

Even though he did come up with a few flashes of brilliance over the next couple of years, Stenson admitted that his game had been affected by the scandal and he was still ranked a lowly 230 as recently as last year. His summer of resurgence began this year with a tie for third in the Scottish Open in July. He followed that up with a runner-up finish at the British Open and the World Golf Championship at Firestone, second place at the Shell Houston Open, and a third place at the PGA Championship before entering the playoffs. Two more wins in the playoffs and hes sitting pretty as the fourth-ranked golfer in the world, his highest ever.

Top of the pile is still Tiger Woods, whose bizarre 2013 season has kept punters guessing how the once-prolific golfer is going to play every time he tees it up. His major drought now extends to 18 tournaments. And in spite of winning five times this season (which wrapped up the player of the year award for him yet again), his showing at the playoffs was nothing short of dismal. He came in with a huge lead which was whittled down significantly by the time the Tour Championship began. He wrapped up the tournament, and the year, finishing in 22nd place out of the 30 participants. At the end of the day, even if Stenson had not won the Tour Championship, Tigers lacklustre showing meant that the Swede would have still won the FedExCup. Such an awkward ending to the title race was fortunately avoided by Stensons final-round heroics.

A wrap-up of the playoffs would be incomplete without a mention of 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, who became the youngest winner on tour earlier in the year (John Deere Classic), and was the first rookie to make it to the select field at the Tour Championship. Whats more, hes also made the Presidents Cup team on merit and is a clear favourite for the rookie of the year award.

All previous criticism notwithstanding, the FedExCup has become a huge commercial success for the PGA Tour. Just this year, for example, players competed for $67 million in prize money and bonuses, which werent there in the game before the FedExCup began. At a time when the European Tour is floundering for lack of sponsors, the playoffs have cemented the USPGA as the pre-eminent professional golf tour in the world. And given the tours aspirations for making a mark in Asia, it wont be surprising if the title is called the ICBC Cup (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) or something on those lines in the future. You get the picture.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game