Commentary

Playing for pay

Updated: July 14, 2011, 11:46 AM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Tiger WoodsHunter Martin/Getty ImagesTiger Woods' time away from golf has caused him to plummet on the money list. But if he played almost any other sport, his on-course earnings would not have changed.

SANDWICH, England -- For the 116th straight season, it looks as if American golf is going to get through another year without a labor stoppage. Arnold Palmers for everybody.

Not true in the NFL and the NBA -- both are in lockouts now -- but how we don't have one in golf I'll ever know. If anybody should strike, it's golfers. They have the worst deal since the Winklevoss twins met Mark Zuckerberg.

Not one of them has a guaranteed contract. In golf, you're promised zilch. You play good, you eat good. You play bad and you're suddenly working behind your uncle's pharmacy counter.

Per diem? Please. In golf, "per diem" translates as "What my wife gives me in the morning."

Contract year? Every year is your contract year.

Disabled list? Get real. If you break your hand in golf, you'd better have Aflac.

You think if Tiger Woods played in the NBA he'd be limping around these past two years without a biweekly paycheck? Are you smoking oregano? In the NBA, he still would have made his many millions per year and the owner would help him wheelbarrow it to the bank.

Mickelson You think Tom Brady pays his own bill when he checks out of the Miami Four Seasons? Phil Mickelson does.

Look at Greg Oden, the rarely dressed center for the NBA's Portland TrailBlazers. In four seasons, he has played 82 games. That's one season spread over four. If he were a golfer, he'd be in Columbus running a big and tall man's shop. But in the NBA, he has made $19.3 million. Nice work if you can get it.

Golf might look as though it's all cashmere and courtesy cars, but in reality, these guys get squat.

In golf, you pay for your own transportation, your own meals, your own medical, your own lodging. You think Tom Brady pays his own bill when he checks out of the Miami Four Seasons? Phil Mickelson does.

LeBron James can stink up the finals like 80 inches of Limburger cheese and he still gets his cash. In golf, if you come to a major and freeze, all you're going home with is an ulcer.

You wanna see a pro golfer laugh? Tell him that the NBA players are hacked off about possibly having their average salary of $6 million trimmed in this lockout. Do you know how many guys on the PGA Tour made that last year? One: Jim Furyk.

"It's hard to really imagine that kind of world," says Justin Leonard, who will play his 19th British Open here Thursday at Royal St. George's. "Guaranteed contracts, no matter what? The rookie salaries? Wow. I can't get my head around all that. That's my incentive to play! I'm kinda proud we start at zero every week."

The only tiny morsel golfers have negotiated for themselves is that every year on Tour, a set of 125 guys are promised a chance to make a living. This is not to be confused with promised a living. If you can get there, you have a tee time, but only half of you will be cashing a check.

"We do have one thing those guys don't," says Tom Watson, who has won the British Open five times. "We get to choose where we play. NBA players don't."

[+] EnlargeJim Furyk
Michael Cohen/Getty ImagesJim Furyk was the only PGA player to earn more than $6 million on the course in 2010. Because he played well, not because he had any contractual guarantees.

True, and when golfers choose not to play somewhere, they get murdered. Kenny Perry, for instance, got ripped for not playing the British Open for many years. But look at it from his wallet's POV:

  • Two round-trip business-class tickets, Kentucky to London: $6,000
  • Caddie for the week: $1,500
  • Seven nights at the players' hotel: $6,000
  • Twenty-one meals at that hotel, where the dollar is limper than the cucumber sandwiches : $2,100
  • Transfers, tips, etc.: $750


  • Total: $16,350

So, before Perry can break even, he has to beat half the best players in the world in a style of golf he hates.

Good luck!

Golfers have the worst job security this side of Naomi Campbell's assistants. These guys are out there on their own skill and their own guts and their own dime, and they deserve some credit for it. You get the yips or a sore back or an ungrateful putter, we'll see you on the Hooters Tour.

Remember Trevor Immelman? Good-looking kid? Won the 2008 Masters? If he were in the NFL, he'd have signed a five-year deal for $75 million. Instead, he goes out and can't find a fairway with a course map, makes $1.3 million over the next three years, and must be wishing he had gone on to optometry school.

But none of that is what would drive your basic American multimillionaire team-sport union-backed jocks nuts.

What would drive them nuts is the part of golf's unspoken contract that says: You call your own fouls. On yourself. Even if nobody saw it. Can you imagine if guys called fouls on themselves in the NBA?

We'd still be waiting.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com