Euro Tour plays 'show me the money'
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- This is a nice place, Abu Dhabi. The second-largest city in the United Arab Emirates, it is part of an island that extends into the Persian Gulf. A cosmopolitan town with a modern skyline, there is plenty of fine dining, friendly people and warm weather.
But is that enough to draw the best golfers in the world here?
Tiger Woods is making his first appearance this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and golf has its first all-star field of the year, with No. 1 Luke Donald, No. 2 Lee Westwood, No. 3 Rory McIlroy and No. 4 Martin Kaymer -- a total of 11 of the top 25 in the world -- beginning play Thursday at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
The competition is good, the tournament facilities excellent and the purse -- $2.7 million -- is on par with other European Tour events.
But there is something else luring the best players in the world to this faraway place.
It is a mostly unspoken fact of life on the European Tour, a look-the-other-way reality that gives events such as this a big advantage in attracting players -- and leaves some PGA Tour tournament directors seething as their rules prevent them from doing the same.
Woods has always commanded the biggest appearance fees in the game, believed to be about $1.5 million this week. Although HSBC officials will not disclose the numbers, the appearance fee pool is estimated to be around $5 million -- nearly double the purse -- and is dispersed to the likes of Westwood, McIlroy, Kaymer, Sergio Garcia and anyone else who can negotiate payment for their services.
"A lot of the guys play all around the world, and they do get appearance fees,'' Woods said. "The only place we don't get it is the U.S.''
Woods was simply pointing out that this is a common occurrence and that he is far from the only player dipping his toes into the appearance-money pool. And he admitted that getting paid to be here was among the reasons he elected to skip the PGA Tour event being played this week at Torrey Pines -- the one he has won six times.
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The Farmers Insurance Open has a $6 million purse with more than $1 million going to the winner, but it will be played without its most successful participant. And nobody at Torrey Pines is guaranteed a cent. Woods has finished in the top 10 in 11 of 12 appearances at the PGA Tour event. He also won the U.S. Open there in 2008.
But the tournament could do nothing about it if appearance money was the deciding factor. PGA Tour rules forbid such payments. Some have suggested such inducements should be allowed, if for no other reason than to even the playing field -- or for less-heralded tournaments to attract better fields.
"That's not a rabbit hole we or the PGA Tour would want to go down," said Farmers Insurance Open tournament director Peter Ripa, who awoke to the news in November that Woods would not be playing his tournament this week. "Our host organizations are 501c-3s [non-profit organizations], generating over $118 million for charities. And the overall purse at the Farmers Insurance Open is [more than twice] the European Tour event.''
Most European Tour events have purses half the size of those on the PGA Tour. But those that direct funds to selected players seem to get the biggest buzz and a good deal of publicity for the title sponsor.
The Abu Dhabi event has been discussed for weeks as a great start to the season, mostly because it has been known for months that Woods, McIlroy and Donald -- who will be grouped together during the first two rounds -- would be here.
"The commercial arrangements we have with some of the players is long seated,'' said Giles Morgan, group head of sponsorship for HSBC, which is in the second year of a five-year contract to sponsor this tournament. It also sponsors the WGC-HSBC Champions in China, as well as several other tournaments.
"Golf is a product and golf is a product particularly in new markets. And you have to ensure that the players are able to showcase what the sport is to the broader public. We are trying to take this sport to a new audience, which means that commercial arrangements are much more likely.''
Or, it is very important to make sure the top players participate.
And would they without being paid to do so? Some have argued that the money should be put into the purse. "But that won't assure that the players will come,'' said agent Chubby Chandler, who represents several European Tour players and estimated that 15 to 20 players in the Abu Dhabi field are receiving guaranteed money.
Certainly the rank-and-file tour players would come. This is their job, and this is where the tour offers a purse this week. It doesn't hurt that HSBC provides complimentary lodging at a seven-star hotel, the Emirates Palace, which goes for in the neighborhood of $1,000 per night.
But Abu Dhabi is a long, long way from where most golfers reside.
For Woods, it took 16 hours to get here flying by private aircraft. Those who live in the United Kingdom faced a seven-hour flight from London. For the big names in the field, there are numerous choices for excellent tournaments throughout the year, perhaps making this week's event -- or upcoming stops in Qatar and Dubai -- a seemingly easy place to skip.
And yet in a sport that typically pays based on performance -- and doesn't pay at all if you miss the cut -- a guarantee makes the travel hassles worthwhile.
So why not on the PGA Tour? Could last week's Humana Challenge have attracted more players if it paid them to be there? What about tournaments that traditionally struggle to get strong fields? Some have put together clever marketing deals with players with an implied assurance of participation.
But for now, a direct payment remains a no-no.
"It's a tough question, because I don't think it'll ever happen,'' said Mark Steinberg, Woods' agent. "I think [PGA Tour commissioner] Tim [Finchem] and the board are dead set against that. I don't think they want to create a situation of haves and have-nots.
"Do I think it could work? I do. It could possibly attract additional international talent. But it's the PGA Tour and the deepest fields in the world, and I think Tim would stick to 'if it's not broke, don't fix it.' But it works here. Nobody shies away from it.''
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Over the years, Finchem has been asked many times about the possibility of appearance fees, and has never wavered.
"From the standpoint of professional athletic competition, it raises the specter in the fans' mind that the player is only there because he was paid to be there and not there to really compete,'' he said. "If the player doesn't play well, in light of that perception, then there is a secondary perception that he didn't even come to compete, he just showed up to get his appearance money. That is not a good thing for your image.
"This is something that's been part of the PGA Tour since its inception in 1968. We think our image is the most important thing we have, and we're not going to take the risk.''
That doesn't seem to be an issue this week. Woods is looking to get his year started in a positive manner. European Tour players such as Donald and Westwood want to enhance their world rankings. A victory against a top-notch field would be great for the résumés.
And yet, it probably doesn't hurt to know that there will be some money in the bank, regardless.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.