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Money runs the show on 1999 US PGA schedule

Just as the bedraggled lot who competed in the season-ending Presidents Cup are able to shake the jet lag out of their bones, they are boarding planes for Hawaii and the season-starting Mercedes Championship. Someday, when archaeologists dig up remnants of the late 20th century, they will likely be confused: "You mean golf once actually had an off season?"

Ancient history.

But as we stand on the cusp of a new season, the division between what went before and what is about to arrive is none the less dramatic. Some would have you believe that the arrival of three new tournaments -- the initial phase of the World Golf Championships -- are this season's headline. Maybe so, but the PGA Tour's new beachhead on the international scene will have to share top billing with the other big story this year: Money. Lots of it.

Just 10 years ago, total prize money for official events on the PGA Tour was $41.4 million, a seemingly healthy number. But with the arrival of the tour's new television deal -- a deal that for the first time means every single round of every PGA Tour event will be televised -- that number seems like peanuts.

Because the major championships have yet to finalise their purses for the upcoming season, the figure will change, but even using last year's numbers for golf's four biggest events, prize money in 1999 will be close to $132 million.

What does that mean? Well, let's go back to our comparison with a season a decade ago. In 1989, someone named Web Heintzelman finished just inside the magic number. He was 124th on the money list with earnings of $103,000. That number was roughly 0.25 percent of the total prize money available.

If somebody finds himself in the equivalent position this year (0.25 percent of total prize money), they will end the season with $327,000. Yikes! Now even the have-nots have.

The three new World Golf Championship events will lead the money charge, each with a $5 million purse and a first prize of a cool million. The international fields in these elite events perhaps will be of greater interest in the United States now that the recently completed Presidents Cup has made one thing abundantly clear: Americans didn't invent the game, didn't perfect it, and just because most people have never heard of that guy with the big smile and day-glo golf bag doesn't mean he can't kick some serious butt.

My guess is this year Shigeki Maruyama sneaks up on no one.

The World Golf Championships and the big money road down which the tour is now barrelling will leave a profound and unalterable mark on the game.

The WGC will put individual match play on the regular schedule in an annual event. This year, the world's top 64 players will gather at La Costa in February for golf's version of March Madness. As the Ryder Cup and the U.S. Amateur have shown, match play can be the game's most compelling competitive form.

But the race to edge out others who might have been planning similar events (IMG, Fox) has left the PGA Tour's World Golf Championships with a few quirks that don't make much sense. The most glaring problem, gets right back to one of its most distinctive features: money.

With so much at stake in a handful of events, it creates a system of imbalanced opportunities. Take the stroke-play event scheduled in August at Firestone. Eligibility is limited to members of the most recent Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. In other words, about 40 people playing for $5 million.

Let's say a non PGA-Tour member like New Zealand's Greg Turner has a pretty good week. He can finish in third place ($360,000) and earn enough money in one shot to get his card for the remainder of '99 and all of 2000. Is that fair? It might be if all tour members and more importantly, those non-members fighting for their cards got the same opportunities, but they don't. All three WGC events have limited fields.

The season-ending event in Valderama, Spain creates a different type of problem. It will be 72 holes of stroke play. The field is likely to include about 75 players. Again, a $5 million purse, $1 million to the winner and, as in all the WGC events, all earnings and statistics are considered official.

In other words, the PGA Tour scoring and money titles will likely be decided at this event. But wasn't that supposed to be what made the Tour Championship a unique event? It was originally conceived as an elite end-of-the-year event limited to the top 30 money winners at which the stakes were not only high but final.

This year at East Lake, while David Duval had the money title virtually won by the weekend, the scoring race wasn't decided until Sunday when Duval overtook Tiger Woods. Now that Valderama comes one week after the Tour Championship, the latter is reduced to a very rich event and nothing more. The tour has emasculated its own showcase event in the name of international competition.

There is much more to this year ahead: The Open finally goes to Donald Ross's masterpiece Pinehurst. After 24 years, the British Returns to Carnoustie. Norman is back. And after two straight spankings, the U.S. gets another crack at the Ryder Cup.

Those will be the headlines as we start the year, but not anywhere near as large or loud as the ones that ask the question on so many people's minds as golf moves into a new age: At what cost success?

TW6/1/99