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TEE TO GREEN, STEVE SCOTT: Self-proclaimed ‘top players’ want so much more for less

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are two of just three golfers in the top 50 of Forbes' list of highest earning sportspeople.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are two of just three golfers in the top 50 of Forbes' list of highest earning sportspeople.

Forbes Magazine’s most recent list of the world’s highest paid sportspeople has who you’d expect near the top.

Lionel Messi, at $130 million, is top of the list. The list was compiled before Argentina’s World Cup win in Qatar. Given the diminutive genius’ bonuses from his existing sponsors, it’s probably a good deal higher than that now.

Similarly, Christiano Ronaldo’s $115m in third place does not account for the lucrative deal he signed with a Saudi Arabian club in December. So you can add a few more sportswashing millions to him.

In second place, separating the two soccer giants, is basketball’s LeBron James. Fitting, no doubt, for a generational player whose influence on wider culture – like Messi and CR7 – goes way beyond his sport.

But it’s interesting that there are 16 other NBA stars in the top 50. You’d expect Steph Curry (5th, $92.8m) or Giannis Antetokounmpo (10th, $80.9m) and the much-travelled James Harden (12th, $74.4m) to be there.

But not having more than a passing interest in the NBA, I’ve no idea who Damion Lillard (20th, $57.4m), Klay Thompson (22nd, $55m), Jimmy Butler (26th, $48m) and many of the rest play for, much less their achievements.

That’s entirely on me, of course. But I think it does indicate how some of us in the golf bubble don’t really appreciate the greater reach of other sports.

Semi-retired Tiger still the top golfer

You want to know where the golfers are on the Forbes list, of course. Tiger Woods is 14th at $68m – all but $40,000 of it, of course, earned off-course because he hasn’t played that much.

Tiger’s really semi-retired. You could make the same designation for the next golfer on the list, Phil Mickelson at 31st with $45.3m.

I suspect this doesn’t include much of his LIV payout, and those specific figures are not public knowledge anyway. Forbes reckons he earned $3.2m on course in their survey period.

The only other golfer in the Top 50 is Rory McIlroy at 37th, on $41.5m. He’s not even the leading Irishman, as MMA star Connor McGregor narrowly tops him in 36th place. Again, this doesn’t seem to include Rory’s $18m FedEx Cup cheque.

On the face of it, the rich list seems to bear out the narrative of the last two years in golf; namely, the top players have not been remunerated sufficiently.

Now, to you and me $45.3m would seem like an eminently reasonable annual return for an ageing golfer like Phil Mickelson. Particularly as he’s in his 31st year as a professional and has maintained a lucrative standard of earning throughout.

But Mickelson became the standard bearer for ‘underpaid’ golfers. Indeed, he cited the level of remuneration in the NBA when making his case.

‘No cut’ elevated events are just the start

LIV Golf and the pivoting of the PGA Tour’s structure to stem defections to the rebel tour have largely been the result. The latest manifestation of this was the revelation several of the new ‘elevated’ events in the 2024 PGA Tour would have fields limited to 70 and no cut.

Regular readers will know my disdainful view of this ‘entitled’ form of the game. Golf’s DNA is, for the most part, meritocratic.

Unlike other sports – well at least until LIV came along – guaranteed money was minimal in golf. You played well, you made money, you got into the big events. You played poorly, you made no money, and pretty soon you weren’t playing anywhere anymore.

It was brutal, but it made golf different than other sports. It also gave the prospect every week for someone to have a life-changing experience.

And that was ALWAYS fully earned. You don’t fluke it four rounds in a row, no matter how unheralded you may be.

The new structure, some argue, amounts to a handful more no-cut events than used to be played before the WGC events were discontinued. Let’s not overreact to that, they say.

But this is coming from a wholly different source than that format did. It’s not hard to imagine that we’re headed to more no-cut events and an ever-more restrictive format going forward.

One that protects this current coterie of ‘top players’ from Joe Journeymans playing better than they do for a week. But also from the jeopardy of the career cliff-face when the minute mechanics of their golf game start to go awry.

Self-interested ‘top players’ are driving this

The big difference is this time the move to no-cut golf is being driven entirely by the self-proclaimed ‘top players’. They’re seeking to increase their earning power and entrench their position without regard to merit, now or in the future.

That to me is entirely contrary to competitive golf’s DNA.

And are they really worth all this extra money?

Messi and Ronaldo in soccer, LeBron and Curry in basketball, Hamilton and Verstappen in F1, Djokovic and Serena in tennis, are all getting their due. These are sports with reach across continents, cultures, and age differences.

Golf – in worldwide terms, less so in Scotland – is a niche sport in a middle-class ghetto it shows little sign of breaking free from. Its leading particpants, Tiger apart, have never been able to hold a candle to the proper superstars of other sports.

LIV, so far at least, proves this. The ‘star quality’ of Mickelson, Bryson, Brooks, DJ et al haven’t even made a dent in the wider sports profile outside golf’s bubble.

Yet golfers are demanding to be paid in comparative figures to properly popular sports.

And not only that, they want to be spoonfed that money. While shutting out roughly half the competitors they formerly had to beat?

I can’t be the only one who feels we, the fan and consumer, are getting a raw deal.