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Purses continue to grow on the PGA Tour

When Dicky Pride, an unheralded former University of Alabama standout, dropped in a 25-foot uphill birdie putt on the first sudden-death hole of the 1994 FedEx St. Jude Memphis Classic, he walked away with a $225,000 first-place check.

When former Ohio State all-American Ted Tryba won the rain-plagued 1999 FESJC, the victory was worth twice as much: $450,000.

And next Sunday, when the FESJC crowns its 2004 champion, the winner will receive an oversized check -- literally and figuratively -- worth $846,000, or almost twice what Tryba pocketed.

It's been a decade of escalating purses on the PGA Tour, boosted, mostly, by the emergence and marketability of Tiger Woods. Woods joined the Tour in 1996 and became the youngest player to win the sport's career Grand Slam and the first to win four consecutive majors.

PGA Tour events in which Woods competed in 2003 attracted 65 percent higher ratings. Those numbers increased when Woods was in contention.

"All the players should bow down and say a prayer of Thanksgiving to Tiger Woods," said FESJC tournament director Phil Cannon. "Everyone from (PGA Tour) commissioner Tim Finchem to the (beginning) caddie."

The PGA Tour's current television contract -- worth about $850 million -- represents a 45 percent increase from the previous four-year deal. No one is predicting what the next TV deal could generate -- ratings are down -- but it could approach the same figure.

Henry Hughes, chief of operations for the PGA Tour, said, "It's a little too early (to predict), but we don't expect it to level off. Our goal is to grow it at as accelerated a rate as possible."

Finchem has said that annual purses could rise to more than $400 million by 2006, the final year of the current contract.

"The increase in purses is largely because of the success of the sport and the growth of the sport," said Ross Berlin, the PGA Tour's vice president of title sponsor relations. "Those factors have resulted in higher rights fees."

Growing rights fees, bigger purses, accelerating winner's checks.

It's hard to imagine that 30 years ago the total purse for the Memphis tournament was $175,000 and that the 1974 champion -- Gary Player -- collected $35,000.

Or that in 1965, when Jack Nicklaus won the Memphis Invitational Open in a playoff, he received $9,000 from a total purse of $60,000.

And is it possible to feel some compassion for 1959 Memphis champ Don Whitt? His victory was worth $3,500 -- half of what Rob Bradley received for finishing last in 2001.

Most purses on the PGA Tour this season have topped $5 million. The FESJC's total purse for this year's event is $4.7 million, up from $3.8 million in 2002.

"I started in 1990 and I couldn't have seen (the rapid acceleration of purses) coming then," Cannon said. "But I saw it coming in 1998. I remember Tim Finchem standing before a group of us and telling us that year what the purses would be after the next series of (TV) contracts. (FESJC general chairman) Grattan Brown Jr. and I looked at each other with our mouths wide open.

"The commissioner said 'The train is leaving the station, either get on it or get off it.' The Tour had a plan, and they have implemented it smartly."

The Shell Houston Open, played in late April, has experienced a similar growth in its total purse. In 1994, the Houston Open paid out $1.3 million, a figure that has grown to $5 million.

"The PGA Tour is re-investing a significant amount of its (rights fees) money into purses," said Steve Timms, the Houston Open tournament director. "That has allowed us to grow."

Timms said golf likely would have experienced a relatively similar growth in the 1960s when Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were rivals had television coverage been what it is today. ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, the USA Network and The Golf Channel are involved in the current TV package.

"Tiger obviously had contributed dramatically to the growth of the game and the growth of interest in the game," Timms said. "Back when Nicklaus and Palmer were creating rivalries with Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tom Weiskopf, you didn't have the television outlets that we have now."

As for determining the annual purse, Cannon said the FESJC relies on several factors, among them recommendations from the PGA Tour to the FESJC board and to FedEx.

"And then the board and FedEx, working together, have the option of accepting that or asking for additional funds from the TV fund," Cannon said.

Cannon said he used to urge the FESJC board to make mid-term increases in the purse, often raising it several hundred thousand dollars to entice a stronger field. But Timms said his experience has been that the players choose to play an event based on three factors: the golf course, the date of the tournament and the purse.

"You want to be competitive in your prize money," Timms said. "But it's not something where you say 'We'll boost it to X amount because we'll lure Player A, B or C."

The Houston Open was held two weeks after the Masters this year. In years it has fallen two weeks before the Masters, Timms said the Open has attracted a strong international field.

"As far as the purse having an impact, it's got to be either real high or real low," Cannon said. "And we'd much prefer our annual donation to St. Jude (Children's Research Hospital) be high and our purse be in the middle."

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