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Why the Ryder Cup is golf’s great equalizer

This week, defending champions the United States, will take on Europe at the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club near Rome, Italy, to contest the 44th Ryder Cup, golf’s premier team event.

It’s the perfect opportunity for the sport to put the past two years of splits and spats behind it, at least for a few days, and get back to doing what fans want most –  to just play great golf.

Why is the Ryder Cup so perfect? 

Because for once in the notoriously greedy world of golf, there is no money at stake.

Yes, in a sport where 25-year-old Norwegian Viktor Hovland took home $18 million for winning the FedEx Cup in August — and where Phil Mickelson, 54 andn at the wrong end of his career, can still bag $200 million of Saudi sportswashing cash — the Ryder Cup remains an anomaly.  And not just in golf but in sport more generally, simply because there is no prize money or appearance fees on offer.

Even the two team captains don’t get paid and there is no win bonus. Compare this to the annual Masters tournament, where the winner is awarded $3.2 million and even their caddie receives 10% of that number. (Caddies don’t get paid at the Ryder Cup, either).

All that’s up for grabs is a 17-inch trophy, weighing just 4 pounds, and the honor of representing their country or continent. 

But this doesn’t stop players from asking for cash.

Tiger Woods, a man who could afford to turn down a reported near $1 billion offer to join the contentious Saudi-backed LIV tournament, has long questioned why players weren’t remunerated for the Ryder Cup. After all, estimates Golf Business News, the event brings in revenues of between $80-100 million.

Woods has long made clear participants should be paid to play. “With all the money that’s being made,” he said at the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah Ill., “I think that we should have a say in where it goes.” 

Former world number one David Duval went as far as suggesting players might boycott the Ryder Cup until a deal was struck to compensate them. “It’s imminent,” he told Golf Digest magazine in September 1999. “This is just from talking to the guys. Some of them are fed up.”

Instead, players are given a small share of the match’s revenues which they can donate to charity. 

At the last Ryder Cup, at Whistling Straits, Sheboygan Wis., for instance, each of the 12 players received $200,000, with $100,000 earmarked for the Boys & Girls Club of America and PGA Junior League Golf, and the other half going to charities of their choice.

But it’s inevitable that the issue of money will raise its head once again.

It wasn’t always that way.

Although it started in 1927, the Ryder Cup was dying a slow and largely unnoticed death as the United States invariably won with indecent haste and embarrassing ease, leading to a decline in interest on both sides of the Atlantic. No one worried about compensation because no one was worried much about the match.

Come the 1980s, though, and Europe — with the irrepressible Seve Ballesteros driving them on — began to prevail, winning for the first time in nearly 40 years at The Belfry in England in 1985 and going on to take 10 of the next 17 competitions.

European success transformed the Ryder Cup from sporting anachronism into global phenomenon and everything grew, from revenues to TV viewing figures – and, of course, players’ demands.

And more money means more problems. 

After all, money is at the heart of what’s been tearing the game apart as the PGA Tour and the Saudi-backed LIV Golf battled it out this past year — not on the fairways and greens, but in the media and the courts.

Sure, they may have brokered a peace deal thanks to the shock merger announcement in June, but the episode has revealed the vulgar commercial underbelly of this most conservative of sports.

And money will still be the elephant in the room in Italy this week when just one LIV player, America’s Brooks Koepka — a captain’s pick in the wake of peace breaking out — will be among the 24 golfers taking part.

In fact, the LIV golfers are conspicuous by their absence.

When they leapt to LIV, the players’ memberships in the PGA Tour was suspended, essentially making them ineligible for the Ryder.

Similarly, despite providing the backbone of the European team for over a decade, there is no Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter or Sergio Garcia, all of whom also switched to LIV — a move which also rendered them ineligible to play. Which means, unsurprisingly, the US team will be favorites to win thanks to Europeans rivals heavily weakened by their more limited talent pool.

Thanks to their surprise July tie-up, the PGA Tour and LIV Golf may have stumbled upon a path forward, however unpalatable, but the rifts in the game remain deep.

But remove the money — and in the case of LIV, where it came from — and maybe golf can just get back to doing what it’s always been good at, without the geopolitical hullabaloo that’s following players’ every move.

You can guarantee, though, that while golfers need to get a grip – and not just of their clubs – it won’t be long before the pay-for-play debate surfaces once again.