My column in the National Post from today:
Canadian Open questioned for players’ outing: Corporate event raised spectre of appearance fees
Robert Thompson Column: On Golf
To Bill Paul, tournament director for the Canadian Open, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
The idea was simple enough: Have Bell Canada, corporate sponsor of the country’s most prestigious golf tournament, invite four of the PGA Tour’s best players up to Vancouver to play a corporate outing and show them that Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club is worth coming to in September when the Open returns to the West Coast.
Where’s the harm in paying thousands to have a few golfers strike a few shots with a bunch of corporate hacks?
Well, in a year when the issue of appearance fees for golf’s best players has become a hot topic, some apparently believe the Bell Canada outing has a bad smell about it.
Earlier this week, an article in USA Today raised some questions about whether the corporate event, which saw defending Canadian Open champion Vijay Singh, Mike Weir, Fred Funk and Chris DiMarco hit the fairways at Shaughnessy. The article seemed to imply that something more was going on at Shaughnessy than simply a friendly business outing. The suggestion is that by paying the four players on Monday, Bell and the Royal Canadian Golf Association have assured them of being in the field for their tournament.
The issue of appearance fees, which are regularly paid on other professional golf tours to lure players such as Tiger Woods to Dubai, for example, gained some attention a few months ago when sports management giant IMG reportedly floated a list of fees that would draw certain players to specific tournaments. In other words, if you wanted Sergio Garcia in your tournament, then set up a Monday corporate outing that pays him US$150,000 and you could be certain he’d hang around for the week.
The concept raised the ire of several key PGA Tour players, including Davis Love III, whose name was on the list even though he isn’t represented by IMG.
Officially, according to a PGA Tour spokesman, a tournament only violates the rule of appearance fees if it ties a corporate outing to a tournament. In other words, a tournament sponsor runs afoul of the rules if they say they will pay a player to appear at their corporate event, but only if the player will stick around to play the rest of the week.
For many tournaments, drawing strong fields to please sponsors and fans has become a challenge. It isn’t just the John Deere Classic and other lesser tournaments that face the issue — the Canadian Open, with its poor date on the schedule, is among them.
The Canadian Open faces another issue this year given the decision to take the tournament to the West Coast at a time when most of the tour’s best have called it a year. The concern on the part of the RCGA is that Shaughnessy, one of Canada’s most interesting golf courses, is also entirely unknown to the players on the tour. The unknown just gives players another excuse to skip the tournament.
The solution was to invite “four guys who could do some yapping,” according to Paul.
Paul said Weir appeared at the event as part of his sponsorship arrangement with Bell Canada. Weir is a safe bet to play in the Canadian Open anyway. Similarly, there’s a good chance Singh, as defending champion and a player known for a big workload, would also appear.
DiMarco and Funk aren’t as certain. Paul said he invited the two players because they are well respected by their peers and are likely to spout off to other players about the merits of the course.
Paul was also very clear that the outing in no way was tied to having the players appear at the Canadian Open. And sure they were paid, Paul said, but “it wasn’t $250,000 or $400,000.”
“They were paid expenses and a little bit of a per diem,” Paul said.
Even then, it was tough to get the four players to commit.
“You ask for a couple of favours,” he continued. “It was a hard challenge.”
So did Bell and the RCGA cross the line in holding its corporate outing at Shaughnessy? Let’s see if all four players show up for the tournament first. Placing a wager on that eventuality is pretty easy — everyone can see where the safe money is.