Vijay Singh, who's not exactly a collector of media memorabilia, actually interrupted a practice session last week to unfurl his hot new copy of Golf World.
It featured a cover photograph of him smiling widely, plus the headline, "The $10,725,166 Man." Just another happy subscriber, right? "No, some lady gave it to me, a stranger," explained Singh, laughing now at his reputation for being so dour. "Look at this picture. Does it look like I'm having any fun?"
Later, with Singh still at home on the range, we followed his question with another: "How much happier would you be if you got paid as well as other athletes?" Singh responded, with a puzzled look, "What do you mean by that?"
I mean, being the first PGA Tour player ever to enter seven-digit heaven for one season is nice, but after what Singh has done in 2004, it's not crazy money. He won nine tournaments. That's almost one a month. Compare his salary -- officially $10,905,166 after the Tour Championship -- with what contemporaries in team sports are pulling in and Singh is the best golfer ever to be disguised as a utility shortstop. Of course, guys in baseball, football and basketball hear about how spoiled they are and they point to show business. Bruce Springsteen makes $64 million per annum, and he couldn't even pick the right president. Howard Stern, with a face made for radio, is good for about $50 million. The name Elvis Presley continues to be worth $40 million every year. But Singh doesn't rock or roll for a living. He just plays golf, which is what a lot of rich people do on vacation. And he doesn't complain.
"I guess what you're saying," Singh went on, "is if I did what I did in another form of athletics -- I don't know about that Hollywood stuff -- I would be better compensated, probably with up-front money. But that's not the way we do it out here. We get paid to perform."
He can say that again. And with rare exceptions, such as the Tour Championship, golfers are paid to perform only on weekends. Imagine if there were a halftime cut in the major leagues of North America. Imagine if there were no guaranteed contracts or signing bonuses. Imagine if players had to go to work before they went to the bank. That's what's so different about golf. You can't buy groceries with promise, only production. You don't get a check for potential, or for Thursday and Friday, either. Golfers can't renegotiate contracts they don't have or use another vehicle so prominent in team sports: If a player reaches certain goals one year, another option year automatically kicks in.
"But what about the endorsement deals we have?" says Singh. "They don't count toward official earnings."
No, but they also dry up and fly away if you don't make a name and keep your fame on the PGA Tour. Then there's Manny Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox. The Most Valuable Player of the World Series led his league in home runs during the regular season. So, he had himself a very good year. But he was going to collect $20.4 million no matter what, even if he got hurt and spent 2004 in the whirlpool. Carlos Beltran is another hot property, a Houston Astros' free agent who will ask for, and probably receive, a 10-year guaranteed contract that could surpass the $252 million package for New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez, who, like Beltran, has never played in a World Series. Want more examples? Last season, there were seven hockey players who earned $10 million per. Hockey players, for goodness sakes! And all of them want to be golfers.
"I've never really given it a thought," Singh says. "I mean, I've been playing golf basically since I was a kid, and when you turn pro, that's just the way it is. The rules out here are that if you play well, you get paid. You don't get paid just for showing up. I don't know what that would be like, what it would mean to start a season with $10 million in the pocket. That would probably be a nice feeling, but I kind of like the way it is. You either do it or you don't do it."
In 1991 Corey Pavin led the tour in earnings with less than $1 million. Purses have increased exponentially since -- thanks in part to Tiger Woods, underpaid for all the pockets he has filled -- but the money now isn't so obscene that it has stifled competition. On the contrary, there's no place for sloth. Singh isn't starving, but he practices as though he were. Golfers can't fake it, phone it in or dial up their union to fight the rules. Golfers can't burn it until they earn it, and maybe that's why fans of the sport don't wish for the old days as often as other fans do. Like 1930, when Babe Ruth signed a contract with the New York Yankees for $80,000, or $5,000 more than what President Herbert Hoover was making. Asked to justify the disparity, Babe reasoned, "I had a better year than he did."
Bob Verdi is a senior writer for Golf World magazine