The life of an elite professional golfer is one of great privilege, born of great skill. And now the International Olympic Committee is learning what organizers of PGA Tour events have known for several years: Getting the elite to schedule your event is like trying to lure multi-millionaires to time-share presentations.
The news that Adam Scott won’t be competing in Rio broke just as the Tour’s traveling road show stops this week in Charlotte for the Wells Fargo Championship, a top-tier event not just on account of its huge purse and quality golf course (Quail Hollow GC), but for the way it has traditionally pampered competitors. This aspect of tour life is seldom discussed outside the most wonky, Tour-obsessed websites and cable channels. However, the last decade has witnessed a startling arms race of perks and incentives, all bestowed with an eye toward delivering “name” players to individual PGA Tour events.
It’s a hard trick to turn. As the IOC is now learning, elite professional golfers have no real incentive to show up anywhere outside the Majors and World Golf Championship events, as they set their own schedules and money no longer interests them. Olympic glory? Representing your country? Cementing golf as an Olympic sport after a 112-year hiatus? A familiar 72-hole stroke-play format (as opposed to the team formats first advanced by Olympic organizers)? Today, all these prospects, conceived to excite, are likely to be met with indifferent yawns.
And why wouldn’t they yawn? Top players are so well compensated, the incentive to play 25-30 events per year (thus spreading around to many events the Tour’s considerable star power) has largely been removed. The fallback position for event organizers has been the lavishing of perks and niceties on players and their families.
At The Players Championship, conducted over Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass course each May, a purpose-built 77,000-square-foot clubhouse sports a cavernous locker room, a separate champions locker room, and a full-on spa that, during the tournament, dispenses free services (not just massage but manicures, pedicures and hot shaves) to players and their family members. The gourmet vittles served here are also considered the best on Tour.
There was a time when tour events burnished reputations by serving really good milk shakes and providing courtesy cars. Courtesy cars are today de riguer for all players, at every tour stop, but Charlotte takes it up a notch. Each golfer is provided a silver Mercedes-Benz S-300 or S-500 for the week. They are also entitled to police escorts if they happen to encounter something unseemly, like traffic. Free valet parking at Quail Hollow? Of course — even the caddies get that!
Event organizers here have recognized that pampering players (and caddies) is good, but pampering their wives and girlfriends is equally vital. During past Wells Fargo events, Tour WAGS have been flown by private jet to visit the Biltmore Estate, the enormous Vanderbilt mansion in Asheville (where the movie Being There was filmed). Players themselves have, in the past, been flown by helicopter to the Loews Motor Speedway, where they get behind the wheels of NASCAR cars.
This is just a sampling of what has, in the past, been done for players and their families. I’m not exactly sure what goodies and jet-set diversions were supplied to them in Charlotte this week — the Tour has wisely stopped publicizing this stuff, as it can appear a might unseemly. But there remains the very real expectation that tour-event organizers must continually up the ante in this regard, or else “name” players simply won’t schedule you. The purse ($1,134,000 to the winner in Charlotte this year) is almost an afterthought.
This is what the IOC is up against in Brazil. Forget the romance of lodging alongside triple jumpers in the Olympic village. These guys are used to the availability of private homes. Throw in the Zika virus and the sheer distance and I think we can all see what’s coming. Olympic rosters for the 60-player men’s and women’s fields will be finalized July 11. Between then and now, expect a parade of polite declinations, citing the need to spend more time with family, the safety of those families, and perhaps the quality of milk shakes in Rio.