Pro golf’s pioneers face old age without a pension
Outside looking in
Pro golf’s pioneers face old age without a pension
The irony is enough to make an old golfer laugh—or cry. The PGA Tour’s wandering band of mercenaries, now finished their northern swing to the Greater Vancouver Open in August and to last week’s Bell Canadian Open in Oakville, Ont., are debating whether to form a union. Often considered the most entrepreneurial of professional athletes because they only get paid when they play well, the men in slacks can still have a pretty cushy life. The Tour will hand out $146 million in total prize money in 1998, out of which the champions at the Canadian tournaments were paid $550,000 and $600,000, respectively. Yet disgruntled players say they want a bigger slice of the Tour’s enormously rich pie and reimbursement for their travel expenses to tournaments, even if they fail to make the halfway cut.
Hearing this, guys like Bob Goalby, Doug Ford, Tommy Bolt and AÍ Balding just shake their heads. They starred before sponsors and TV contracts stuck all those zeros on the end of the winners’ cheques. Well past retirement age, they can be found at so-called super-senior tournaments such as the recent Liberty Health Invitational in Etobicoke, Ont., for players 60 and over. They can still play, they enjoy the competition and, although none will admit it personally, most of them need the money, liberty Health champion Jimmy Powell collected nearly $45,000, and last place was worth $3,000—useful sums for entrants who, for the most part, do
not have other means of support. Fact is, the Tour veterans do not get a pension, and Chi Chi Rodriguez, among others, thinks that stinks. ‘These guys made the cake,” Rodriguez says of his older colleagues, “but other guys got to eat it.”
The old-timers are not looking for charity— they say they earned the right to share some of golfs current riches. Many in the Islington field were among the players who, in 1968, risked their livelihoods to create the current Tour by forming the Association of Golf Professionals and hiring a lawyer to wrest control of the circuit from the powerful PGA of America. Balding joined that breakaway group, and he recalls being nervous about taking on the game’s ruling powers. In fact, the Canadian PGA threatened to expel Balding and George Knudsen for their support of the players’ revolt hut later backed down.
The new administration flourished, however, as did the Senior Tour, which they began in 1980 for the 50-and-over set. As in other sports, incomes skyrocketed—Sam Snead, who won a record 81 tournaments between 1936 and 1965, took home a total of $942,591 in his entire career, whereas David Duval, the current money-leader on the PGA Tour, has already pocketed more than $3 million in 1998, as has Hale Irwin on the Senior Tour. But many of the founders had retired before the tours’ pensions were established in 1983 (regular tour) and 1986 (seniors), and they cannot now be grandfathered into the plans. Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has
instead promised to stage more super-senior events to bolster retirement incomes, but that only serves those who are healthy enough to play. Goalby, 69, bristles at the contrast in fortunes between his peers and modern players who can be set for life with a couple of good seasons. “The guys out there today,” says Goalby, “they don’t have any idea what we did for them.”
That’s not entirely true. Many of the players at the Open last week expressed sympathy when informed that former Tour stars were not included in the pension plans. “I definitely think we owe guys like that something,” said Dudley Hart, the 1996 Canadian Open champion. “They got the whole thing going.” But veteran Brad Faxon said few players would agree to even a slight reduction in their own income to support their predecessors. “I think a lot of our guys forget how good they have got it out here,” Faxon says.
Other sports have found ways to help veterans whose savings are depleted by medical bills and costs of living. In August, the NHL Players Association distributed $600,000 in royalties from a trading card set to the 30 surviving NHL veterans who played before the pension was created in 1948. The PGA Tour can certainly afford a similar gesture. New TV rights deals will increase tournament purses by 30 per cent in 1999 and by 100 per cent in 2002. But as nonprofit organizations, officials say, the Tour cannot disburse funds except through competitions, leaving supersenior tournaments as the best way to create income for players outside the plans. “This is something we have worked at for years,” says Ron Price, the PGA Tour’s senior vice-president of finance. “We wish we could do more.” Silver-haired but fit at 74, Balding spent four years in an artillery battery in the Second World War, returned home to drive a truck for Carling O’Keefe, and got into golf in 1950 as a $19-a-week club cleaner at a golf course west of Toronto. Within a few years, he was Canada’s top touring pro—in 1957 he won three times and finished eighth on the money list with a little more than $20,000. He left the Tour because of a recurring shoulder injury a decade before the pension plan was established. Now living in Mississauga, Ont., with his wife, Moreen, Balding says the oldtimers’ plight may ultimately get the tours’ attention. He says that in 1968, when he and the other pros broke from the PGA, they threw in $500 each—a lot for the time—to pay legal and start-up costs. “I’m no lawyer,” he says, “but I wonder: if we were the ones who put up the money, doesn’t that mean we own the thing?” The Tour may find that helping the old-timers is less expensive than getting an answer to Balding’s question.
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