‘I got paid behind closed doors’: Bubba Watson says he received appearance fees during PGA Tour career
If the civil war that has played out in the golf world in 2022 has delivered one thing in particular, it’s opinions and previously unspoken details. Everyone in pro golf has been asked to share their thoughts, and in the process a lot of back-channel information has been divulged.
Enter Bubba Watson, current LIV golfer, former PGA Tour golfer, and mostly current non-golfer due to rehabbing surgery. Watson spoke with ESPN last week and detailed appearance fees he and other Tour players receive through sponsorship agreements, a rarely discussed corner of the PGA Tour world.
“It makes me laugh because on the PGA Tour, I got paid behind closed doors to show up at tournaments, many tournaments,” Watson told ESPN during LIV’s team championship last week. “And if Bubba Watson’s not the best, that means the best were getting paid better than me and more than me. And so it’s guaranteed money. I miss the cut, I still make money. I make the cut, I make extra money.”
It’s unclear which sponsor or tournament Watson was speaking about, but from his words alone the act seems extremely spelled out. If he agreed to play an event because of a defined contract, then performed well at the event in question and was paid better as a result, that would likely be against PGA Tour regulations, which prohibits players from accepting appearance fees to play specific tournaments. But if he simply agreed to sponsor-related duties during a tournament week, and that coincidentally took place during a week where that sponsor was the tournament sponsor, there’s no issue at hand. According to Watson, this happens all the time, which he was drawing into comparison with the guaranteed money he and other LIV Golfers were receiving to play on the rival tour.
According to PGA Tour regulations, strictly accepting money for showing up to a specific tournament is prohibited, and on both sides of the transaction. The regulations read as follows: “Neither players nor other individuals acting on such players’ behalf shall solicit or accept any compensation, gratuity or other thing of value offered for the purpose of guaranteeing their appearance in any PGA tour cosponsored, approved or coordinated tournament, including any pro-am played in connection therewith, except as may be specifically authorized by the PGA TOUR Policy Board prior to the tournament.”
In other words, getting paid extra or getting paid directly to make an appearance in a specific tournament is against the rules. This is all made more interesting because appearance fees certainly exist within the game. Of all places, they have been most popular of late at the PIF Saudi International, which has famously offered appearance fees through the years to the biggest players in the game. Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson — they’ve all reportedly been on the receiving end. Tiger Woods was offered a fee in the range of $3 million to play the event in 2020 but passed on the opportunity. Mickelson took the money, played the event and even took to social media to defend his decision.
Just two months ago, Xander Schauffele told the Drop Zone Podcast that he played the Saudi International earlier this year for an appearance fee. “I went to collect an appearance fee, I’m not going to sit here and lie about it,” Schauffele said. “Nothing really came of it except playing a tournament on a different continent and me collecting some cash.”
But it should be noted that the Saudi International was once a DP World Tour event and has now transitioned to an Asian Tour event. The Asian Tour has now been largely funded by LIV Golf Investments. Its title sponsor is also the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. It’s not difficult to connect the dots here, but that event is very different than those of the PGA Tour, which is what Watson is discussing.
“I’d laugh at [criticism] because we all had some guaranteed money to show up at places,” Watson said. “Win, lose, quit, whatever it is, you still got the money. We’ve all been doing that. We’ve all been playing for guaranteed money. The critics, it just makes me laugh because that’s what we’re doing. We don’t want to talk about it on Tour, but we are getting it.”
It’s hard to be sure where these Watson comments lead us other than to a potential better understanding of player commitments. If Watson were still a member of the PGA Tour, his words could stand to launch an investigation into agreements of that variety. The extent of his agreements has been kept … foggy. And since he resigned his membership — even while he still hasn’t hit a shot in a LIV Golf event — Watson’s words are just words at this point. If they lead us to more opinions and details shared by those atop the men’s game, we’re all for it.