ATLANTA — When they say it’s not about the money, well — of course it’s about the money. How can you ignore it at the Tour Championship, where the once-considered obscene amount of paying $10 million to the winner of the FedEx Cup has now gone to $15 million?
So, sure, the money matters. Perhaps not to the level of stressing about it for many in the 30-player field at East Lake who have accumulated vast sums in their careers. But certainly enough to make you think.
If nothing else, that kind of haul (actually, $1 million of it is deferred into a retirement account) can be life-changing not so much for the golfer, but for the team around him. To wit: A list of golfers who have won the FedEx Cup and paid their caddies a 10% bonus includes Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Billy Horschel, Henrik Stenson and Brandt Snedeker.
Golfers who fly private jets, own multiple homes, employ teams of coaches, trainers, psychologists, agents, nutritionists and have lucrative endorsement deals on top of all the prize money long ago learned to put the money out of their minds and play for the trophies. After all, one leads to the other.
But there was a time when most of these guys were far from flush with cash, when performing on the golf course for pay was a jittery proposition. Ultimately, players are judged on the PGA Tour by FedEx Cup points — which translate to money. And your existence as an exempt player depends on accumulating it.
And since there are no guaranteed paychecks, and travel and coaching can be expensive, those long-ago experiences with making money for the first time are still burned into the minds of those who now let accountants and lawyers fret about that stuff.
Here’s a look at four prominent players in the Tour Championship field this week and their money stories.
Justin Thomas: Official PGA Tour career earnings: $30,204,631
Thomas, 26, who entered the Tour Championship at the top of the FedEx Cup standings, has amassed a small fortune in a short time, winning 10 times, including a major championship. He considered it a big deal when just two years ago he was able to buy his own home.
But as recently as 2014, Thomas was toiling on what was then the Web.com Tour when he got an exemption to play in the Memorial Tournament.
“Obviously the purses are a lot different on the Web,” he said. “I was playing pretty well. I was probably in 18th, something like that, going into 18 on Sunday and I made double[-bogey]. I remember, wow, that cost me. I didn’t look it up. It cost me a lot.”
Thomas ended with a final-round 72 and finished in a tie for 37th place.
“I’ll never forget, I got a text from my mom the next day,” he said. “‘That double-bogey on 18 yesterday cost you $42,000.’ I was like, “Mom, if you ever send me a text like this again, I will delete your number. Don’t ever text me something like this.’ Especially in a text message where you can’t hear the tone, you just look like it, really? Did you need to send that?
“But everybody … the first couple years as a pro, when you start getting paychecks, you think about it. But I’ll never forget that. It was pretty funny.”
Brooks Koepka: Official PGA Tour career earnings: $30,342,808
Koepka is ranked No. 1 in the world and came into the Tour Championship third in the FedEx standings, meaning he trailed Thomas by three strokes. He finished in the top four of all four majors this year, winning the PGA Championship, and has four major titles among his seven victories.
But Koepka, 29, was not a surefire pro prospect in the beginning. After playing college golf at Florida State, he was not able to make it onto the PGA Tour or even the Web.com Tour (now Korn Ferry Tour).
So he played on the European Tour’s developmental tour called the Challenge Tour, where he sharpened his skills by traveling to play tournaments in more than a dozen countries.
“When I got started, I didn’t have any money,” he said. “I didn’t have anything. You’re trying to pay for the flight for next week. You’re trying to pay for the hotel room. I mean, you don’t have enough. … I really didn’t have any funds to keep going through the year. It was more I need to go out there and go make some cash so I can go play.”
In 2012, Koepka won the Challenge de Catalunya, in Tarragona, Spain, a victory that was worth €25,600 — or the most money he had ever made.
“I look back on the Challenge Tour, and I thought I was rich at that time,” said Koepka, who would win three more Challenge Tour events the following year to get promoted to the European Tour.
“It’s a great feeling. The first big paycheck I made was at Frys (the Frys.com Open in 2013 where he tied for third and made $240,000). I think it’s the first time I made six figures, and at that time, I remember thinking how cool that was, if only every week was like that.
“I think every pro starting their career, it’s crucial to get off to a good start. That way you relieve the pressure. I see my brother (Chase) going through it right now (on the Challenge Tour). It’s difficult, especially if you’re not out here on the PGA Tour. You’re grinding each week for travel. People forget we have a lot of expenses, too.”
Rory McIlroy: Official PGA Tour career earnings: $48,719,760 (total does not include European Tour earnings)
McIlroy, 30, who entered the Tour Championship fifth in the FedEx Cup standings, has been a pro for 12 years. That means he was just 18 when he started playing for pay in 2007.
“The British Masters was my first tournament as a pro,” McIlroy said. I finished 42nd and won like £17,000 (€15,128). Then the next week I went to the Dunhill [Links Championship in Scotland], finished third and won £230,000. I’m 18 at the time. I didn’t really know about taxes. And then I played in Madrid the next week, finished fourth, won another 50 grand (€41,580) or whatever.
“And then I got home, and I went to get money out of the ATM. [I’m] 18 years old, I have a debit card, put it in the ATM and it says ‘would you like to check your balance?’ I check my balance and I was like, wow. I went straight to the jewelry store and bought myself a watch.”
McIlroy won the FedEx Cup in 2010 — and that $10 million does not count in his career earnings. He’s made a considerable amount on the European Tour and through endorsements as well. When he told the story about giving his then-caddie J.P. Fitzgerald over $1 million after the FedEx win in 2016, the caddie reported a “tsunami” hitting his bank account.
Justin Rose: Official PGA Tour career earnings: $53,487,409 (not including European Tour earnings)
Rose, 39, is the defending FedEx Cup champion, having won the title at East Lake a year ago while holding off Tiger Woods — who won the tournament title that is no longer being staged. Rose began in 17th place this year.
But the Englishman’s career began rather inauspiciously. After finishing tied for fourth as an amateur at the 1998 Open at Royal Birkdale — holing a pitch shot for birdie on the last hole — Rose turned pro immediately at age 17 and missed 21 consecutive cuts. He didn’t earn his full tour card in Europe until a year later after going through the qualifying tournament.
“I always remember sort of having enough to get to the next tournament,” he said. “I didn’t sign a (sponsorship) deal right after Birkdale, which I probably should have done. Should have let everything solidify, pen a couple of deals, and go out and play a little freer. I felt like every round I played for those first few weeks I felt was influencing my value. I felt like I maybe added to the pressure. It made it just a little harder to focus on golf, I was so young and naïve.”
So playing for $10 million when you’re already established is a lot different playing for a few euros in Europe when you have none.
“It gets in your head a little bit,” Rose said of last year’s FedEx Cup. “It’s a huge reward, pot of gold at the end. But I’ve always played to win and for pride. And there’s no doubt that when I was struggling in my career and trying to justify myself and justify my decision to turn pro, when I was going through all those missed cuts, I felt like there was more self-induced pressure there.
“This is the very top end of the game we’re talking about, winning the FedEx Cup. Last year was unbelievable, but when you’re playing well, the pressure is so much more easy to absorb. When you’re playing poorly, the pressure is way different. It seemed insurmountable at times because you’re not as confident in your skill set. When you’re playing great, bring on the pressure, because I know I’m playing well, and I know what it takes to come through on top. So very different mindsets when you’re playing poorly under pressure and playing well under pressure.”