With Money, Sponsors and Rival Golf Tours, It’s Hard to Keep Everyone Happy
All but a half dozen professional golf tournaments — out of hundreds of events held each year — rely on a marquee sponsor and dozens of other co-sponsors to pay millions of dollars for each event to happen.
There are a few notable exceptions: the Masters, the United States Open, the P.G.A. Championship and the British Open.
But even an event as prestigious as this week’s BMW PGA Championship at the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England — one of the top events on the DP World Tour — relies on the German carmaker plus another dozen sponsors, like Zoom, Rolex and Hilton, to fund the event, pay the players and have something left over for charity.
There’s just one problem. The BMW PGA Championship will have more than a dozen players from the rival Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf series in the field, including fan favorites Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood and several players that could win the event like Kevin Na, Patrick Reed and Martin Kaymer.
Unlike the PGA Tour, which has suspended members who have joined LIV and barred them from playing in PGA Tour events, the DP World Tour has a slightly different policy. Members who qualify for tournaments, like Wentworth, based on their world rankings or other criteria, are allowed, for now, to play in the event.
Given the amount of money sponsors pledge to an event on the DP World Tour, the PGA Tour or any of the other tours around the world, they want something in return. Corporate perks and television coverage for sure, but they also want great players to create compelling drama. That’s what happened in the final round of the Tour Championship on the PGA Tour on Aug. 28, when Rory McIlroy beat his playing partner, Scottie Scheffler, by one stroke to win the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour’s season-long points competition. (Southern Company, Coca-Cola and Accenture are sponsors of the Tour Championship, not to mention FedEx, who as a season-long sponsor of the PGA Tour contributes a large part of the $18 million first-prize check.)
And having a winner from LIV Golf creates a difficult situation for sponsors and the DP World Tour itself, which is a strategic partner of the PGA Tour but has allowed LIV players to compete.
Before the tournament even started, the LIV presence at Wentworth was criticized by top tour members like the U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick, who called the LIV presence “disappointing.” Billy Horschel, who won the BMW PGA Championship in 2021, said the LIV golfers shouldn’t be allowed to play on the DP World Tour at all: “They decided to go play on that tour and they should go play there.”
Its sponsor has remained neutral.“The focus of the BMW Group is to host a world-class event and provide a premium experience for players, fans and enthusiasts at all our sport engagements,” said Tim Holzmüller, a spokesman for BMW Group Sport Engagement.
Great players bring in fans and television viewers at home. And a battle between a LIV golfer and a PGA or DP World Tour member would certainly juice ratings. But what happens afterward for sponsors would be hard to say.
The traditional measure of a tournament is its “strength of field,” which is important to ensure sponsorship dollars are well spent. In layman’s terms, the term refers to the quality of the players committed to playing the event. And for sponsors, the bigger the stars the bigger the audience.
The DP World Tour says its marquee event has a strong roster of players.
“The field for this year’s event is projected to be significantly stronger than last year’s event,” said Steve Todd, deputy media communications director for the DP World Tour, noting that three top-10 players are in the field — McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Fitzpatrick. The last time that happened was in 2019 — the last BMW PGA Championship unaffected by the pandemic.
Todd added that there were plenty of fan favorites to draw in viewers and satisfy sponsors.
“The field also features defending champion Billy Horschel and a number of Ryder Cup players including Viktor Hovland, Shane Lowry, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Justin Rose and Francesco Molinari, all of whom have strong records in the tournament and are particularly popular with the Wentworth crowds,” he said. “Also playing is [Ryder Cup] European captain Luke Donald, who won the event back-to-back in front of his home English fans in 2011 and 2012.”
Westwood, a three-time winner of the DP World Tour’s Race to Dubai and a winner on the PGA Tour, is now a LIV golfer who is playing at Wentworth this week. He said he didn’t believe it made any difference who won.
“Everyone playing at Wentworth has qualified to play by right,” he said in an interview. “It’s the strongest field at the BMW PGA Championship for years.”
He added: “If a LIV golfer wins, then he’ll be the person that’s played the best and will fully deserve it. I don’t think the public in general are bothered what tour people play on. They just want to see the best players play great golf.”
Andrew “Chubby” Chandler, a longtime agent for players on the DP World Tour, said the competing tours at Wentworth “adds a lot to the event both in star names and intrigue. I don’t see a problem if a LIV golfer wins at Wentworth. I think it possibly shows what might have happened if the [DP World Tour] could have accepted all the LIV golfers as full members when it was suggested four months ago.”
The tournament also comes just weeks after the PGA Tour made significant changes on how it operates that may not align with what the DP World Tour is doing.
For one, top players on the PGA Tour need to commit to 20 events, which could be challenging for European players. The Tour has also created so-called elevated events with greater prize money. Both are meant to get the top players competing against each other more often.
McIlroy said that sports fans want to see the best in the game when they tune in to watch, drawing a comparison to U.S. football fans wanting to see Tom Brady at quarterback if they’re watching a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game.
Yet the up-and-coming players are being given a $500,000 draw against their PGA Tour earnings to help them compete. This goes for both U.S. players who have made it to the PGA Tour and international players who have qualified through the DP World Tour rankings.In other words, it’s helping to end the economic disadvantage that young players have in golf that they don’t in other professional sports.
“It’s comparable to how other leagues approach their athlete compensation,” said the PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan at a news conference. “For rookies, coming out here and knowing that that’s payable on day one we think will help put those rookies in a better position to compete because they can invest in the infrastructure they need to succeed.”
(Players who miss the cut also get a $5,000 stipend to help cover their expenses.)
The PGA Tour’s August announcement also has given LIV players fodder to play both sides of the debate, since what it means for the tour’s partner, the DP World Tour, wasn’t mentioned.
“The goal for the DP World Tour is finding a way to get the top Europeans that play on the PGA Tour to come back and play in Europe more often, not just the odd big one or two tournaments where they get appearance money,” Westwood said. “This is all going to be made harder by the new concept that Jay [Monahan] announced that is designed to guarantee 20 strong fields in the U.S. with not much thought given to the DP World Tour and other tours. It’s an odd decision considering the new ‘strategic alliance’ supposedly in place.”
But a PGA Tour official who was not authorized to speak because of ongoing litigation involving LIV Golf said the strength of fields on the tour remains strong even without the players who have left.
And that, at the end of the day, is what some observers believe companies want. “Sponsors,” Chandler said, “want the best fields at their events so BMW will be pleased.”