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Greenbrier is example of hosting a tourney the American way -- throw cash at players

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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The Greenbrier resort extended its contract to host a PGA Tour event through 2021. (Getty Images)  
The Greenbrier resort extended its contract to host a PGA Tour event through 2021. (Getty Images)  

No question, the place has hosted its share of heroes and historical figures, and we don’t mean the kind wherein their battle gear featured a dimpled ball and chromed shafts. More like lead balls and blunderbusses.

Long before it toppled into recent bankruptcy proceedings, West Virginia’s venerable Greenbrier Resort was at various time the property of both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War, which brings us to a rather apt analogy.

In an attempt to put the resort back on the map of relevance after years of serious financial issues, Greenbrier owner Jim Justice has been dipping into his massive financial war chest to win a PGA Tour player recruiting war with tournaments that don’t have the same cash cannon at their disposal.

As one longtime, respected and increasingly concerned PGA Tour tournament director put it this week, "Compared to him, we’re using muskets."

If not suffering from powder burns.

Welcome to July 4 week at the Greenbrier Classic, a third-year event that has become the living, breathing embodiment of the American way. Which is to say, when in doubt, throw a wheelbarrow of cash out there on the table and hope somebody takes the bait.

Indeed, Greenbacksbrier this week has a field that includes the two biggest draws on the tour, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who seemingly stand to make a healthy chunk of change by doing little more than showing up -- regardless of how they play.

Granted, the contract particulars are as hazy as the air during a Civil War battle, but the smoke surrounding the Woods and Mickelson appearances has been hard to avoid. While the deals and dollar figures remain unconfirmed -- and it will likely stay that way -- multiple sources have repeatedly cited the same numbers: Woods is drawing $1.5 million and Mickelson is getting $1 million.

Sure, a strict pay-for-play arrangement has, and remains, against the rules on the U.S. tour. Which doesn't necessarily lessen the confusion, if not the eye-rolling. Cough, cough.

Whatever the details, and regardless of how much the high-profile pair will be expected to sing for their supper by participating in a corporate clinic, or appearing at a cocktail party, the practice of signing players to lucrative personal-services deals has widened the gulf between an increasingly stratified tournament product. One that's separated and sorted by the sponsor's wallet size.

Lamented one middle-tier tournament director, who feels as though he is firing spitwads against Justice’s billion-dollar battleship: "We don’t have the resources to throw another $1 million into the budget to buy players. It just doesn’t fit our tournament model ... It’s not a fair fight."

It’s all the latest rage, really. In essence, select tournaments have become evermore clever and resourceful in finding ways to attract top players while skirting, albeit barely, the appearance-fee regulations. For the sake of propriety, let’s call them inducements. Two of the tour’s deep-pocketed sponsors, Zurich and Royal Bank of Canada, over the past 2-3 years launched what have become known as ambassador programs, wherein a handful of notable players have been signed to endorsement deals.

Forking over a hundred grand apiece to select players isn’t against the rules, as long as the lone requirement in the contract agreement isn’t to merely show up and play. That would connote an appearance fee, and as most fans know, they are verboten in the States, although not on other global tours.

So, while 10 or so players with RBC logos on their shirts -- likely to include Luke Donald, Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar, Ernie Els and Hunter Mahan -- will be hopping on a chartered plane after the British Open to fly halfway across the planet to tee it up at the RBC Canadian Open, other tourney directors are trying to dogpaddle as best they can.

"I think the tour is complicit, frankly," one source with three decades of involvement with players, the networks and the Tour observed.

That tends to draw a strong reaction from Camp Ponte Vedra. Tour communications chief Ty Votaw said that only broader agreements with sponsors are green-lighted and added that the tour does, in many instances, review contract language between players and sponsors, though he declined to offer specifics as to which deals, or what percentage, are closely scrutinized.

The tour uses a very narrow, if not convenient, definition of "appearance fee." If a player has deeper business dealings with a corporate entity beyond taking cash to play, then he's generally free to ink a personal-services deal for whatever dollar figure he can command. If this sounds mostly like semantics, well, the line forms here.

As one very high-profile international player put it on Tuesday, "This week marks a change. Appearance money [is being paid in the] U.S. but not in Europe."

After arriving Tuesday, Woods was not specifically asked if he was being compensated by Justice this week, though a local reporter did ask if Justice resorted to “pulling his arm” to get him there.

"What sold it to me was watching it on TV and seeing how players enjoyed it," Woods said unblinkingly.

Um, did he say "sold?"

Mickelson played at Greenbrier last year -- for two days. He missed the cut.

"I know for a fact that Phil got $1 million last year," one top-tier agent insisted, citing a figure that was echoed by two other tour-related sources.

Of course, philosophically, the rest of us are left to wonder whether the chicken or the financial nest egg came first as far as the initial attraction for the player.

At Zurich’s New Orleans event, a handful of high-profile players participated in an exhibition match before the tournament using hickory-shafted clubs. Graeme McDowell, Camilo Villegas and Keegan Bradley were among those who played -- in both the exhibition and the event proper.

Other players often perform in corporate outings staged at different sites and times, before or after the company's sponsored PGA Tour event is contested. Mickelson, who is believed to make as much money off the course as any active player in the game, does a handful of corporate outings annually and has for years. Players get paid, ostensibly for extracurricular appearances, then show up to play the tournament. Sorta puts the pro in quid pro quo, eh?

Said one very prominent agent: "It's generally a wink-and-a-handshake deal to also play in the tournament."

It's not against tour rules and perhaps it shouldn’t be. That doesn’t make it any more palatable for some.

Justice has surely upped the ante in many ways this week at Greenbrier, which he bought at fire-sale prices three years ago, then pumped 10s of millions from his own wallet to reinvigorate its reputation as a high-end vacation destination. According to published reports, the resort has mostly struggled to generate anything but red ink.

Still, on Tuesday, the resort extended its deal to host a PGA Tour event through 2021, so Justice clearly has not run out of cash. As part of this week’s offerings, he signed Rod Stewart, Toby Keith and Bon Jovi to play a series of concerts after tournament play concludes, which made competing tournament directors bristle even more. While we’re mostly focused on attracting players here, and not fans, it's another headache for some.

"I guess this is the way the game is played," a tournament director said. "What’s another million dollars to get some more of the top guys?"

Plenty, in most tournament budgets. Sponsors already are forking over $7 million or thereabouts to put their name on a tour event, and that’s before shelling out discretionary cash for extra bells and whistles.

What draws wary, competing and potentially jealous eyes toward Justice is that he’s using his own money. After making a bazillion in the coal and farming industries, the native West Virginian is determined to prop up the Greenbrier and he doesn’t answer to a board of directors.

"Or to shareholders, because there is no stock," one tournament director said.

If there was, it might be rising in value. Rest assured, if Woods or Lefty are in the weekend mix, their perceived paydays might be money wisely expended. Justice has also been in discussions with the tour about hosting a future Presidents Cup at the resort, Votaw confirmed.

By any standard, staging a tour event has becoming an increasingly expensive arms race. If top players only tee it up 18-20 times a year, and gravitate toward events offering what amounts to show-up money with few strings attached, it creates a personnel problem.

"It takes them off the table for us," one tourney director said. "Their discretionary opportunities are fewer and fewer. We really do become affected by that. On top of it all, then you have openly legal appearance fees being offered by European Tour events."

Others have tried the Justice model and eventually abandoned it. Multi-millionaire Joe Hardy, who owned 84 Lumber, established a tour event in rural Pennsylvania, eventually erecting ostentatious statues of Vijay Singh and John Daly on the property. When his daughter took over, she fast realized how much money he was pumping into the event and pulled the plug. A tourist casino destination outside Syracuse, N.Y., the Turning Stone Resort, also ended its run as a tour site after a very brief run.

Survival of the fittest keeps getting more and more expensive. Tournaments are providing shopping trips for wives, free rental cars, discounted hotel stays, transportation from the airport, free laundry and dry cleaning. To think that 25 years ago, players had to pay for range balls.

Yet rarely, if ever, have the player cash inducements seemed so obvious.

"It is not a level playing field," the middle-tier tournament director said. "It’s very draining from a tournament director standpoint."

But downright fattening for some player wallets.

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