Appearance fees have always been a taboo topic in golf. 

Since the turn of last century when Spalding paid the great Harry Vardon to take a star-spangled tour showcasing the Vardon Flyer golf ball, the concept of paying someone for the privilege of vying for prizemoney has divided the golf world.

In more modern times, in places like the Middle East and Asia – where bottomless pits of gold loom large – throwing seven figures at the Tigers and Phils of the world has become the norm.

Here in Australia, some 15,000 kilometres away from the glitz and the glam of the PGA Tour, financially incentivising golf’s ‘needle-movers’ to board a luxury jet bound for our shores has become a necessary evil but, sadly, not a sustainable one. 

It’s why the Women’s Australian Open has, in recent years, become a fortunate model for success.

Since 2012, the tournament has leant on its co-sanctioning agreement with the LPGA Tour to welcome a roll call of the world’s biggest names. To the surprise of nobody, it has engraved the likes of Jessica and Nelly Korda, Lydia Ko, Inbee Park and Jiyai Shin on its winner’s trophy in the past decade alone. And it’s done so without paying them a cent in appearance fees, as per LPGA Tour regulations. 

Say what? Yep. Not one cent, though these superstars haven’t come Down Under entirely for free. Golf Australia has shelled out for their travel and accommodation expenses… a small price to pay – one would think – to guarantee a world-class field all hoping to launch their respective LPGA seasons on the right note. 

If only it was a small price.

As they say, when something’s too good to be true it generally is. And for this smorgasbord of star power, the numbers are no longer adding up for tournament bean counters. To be fair, the red flags were raised long before the world was hit by a pandemic. But COVID-19 has only escalated the cold, hard truth: running a world-class tournament on the other side of the planet is an expensive caper.

Sources within the WPGA Tour of Australasia told Australian Golf Digest that it was now extremely hard for event owners to justify covering the travel costs of 100 international players to travel to Australia. The problem isn’t a willingness – or lack of – to roll out the red carpet for the game’s best players. It’s the obligation they must do the same for all travelling players. The tournament’s return on investment is very much put into question when dozens of players not considered ‘headliners’ all want a piece of the action. And you thought appearance fees were big, eh?

“Does the Australian golf fan really care about the 80th-ranked player on the LPGA Tour?” asks our source inside the WPGA Tour. “It wouldn’t be an issue if we were getting 20 of the top 25 players coming Down Under. That’s real bang for your buck in an overall sense. Unfortunately, we only get, on average, eight of the top 30. So, when you are forking out business-class flights and putting them up in a swanky hotel for the week, because that’s the expectation these days, it becomes a very costly exercise.” 

To put all this into perspective, Golf Australia reported a $4 million surplus for the 2020-21 financial year after previous losses of $383,926 (2019-20) and $1.4m (2018-19). What was behind the change in fortune? More club membership revenue? Huge TV-rights deals? 

Not quite. 

It was the fact Golf Australia didn’t hold many of its big events, the Women’s Australian Open included, due to COVID-19. That’s what trimming your tournament expenditure from $10.6m down to $2.2m will do. Profits, baby! Running golf tournaments isn’t for the faint-hearted, nor the shoestring budget. 

Suffice to say, some believe  it would make far more economic sense to hand the Korda sisters or Jin Young Ko – even Danielle Kang [see page 102] – a fat cheque and an ocean-view penthouse to headline the Women’s Australian Open and fill the field with our country’s leading players, instead of breaking the bank for a conga line of international also-rans, with the greatest respect. Unless, of course, the LPGA Tour came to the party?

After announcing some lucrative corporate partnerships in the new year, new LPGA Tour commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan may well have some ideas to ensure her tour’s Aussie stopover remains a permanent fixture moving forward. Stepping into the shoes of the ever-popular Mike Whan, Marcoux Samaan reveals in our exclusive interview [see page 58] the words of advice she received from her predecessor before commencing the gig. 

“[He told me] the tournaments are the most important thing. Focus as much as you can on making sure we have the right opportunities for our players with the right partners.”

Let’s hope Australia featured heavily in the handover document.

Photo by Getty images: Sue McKay