Pull of PGA Tour money remains moving target

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- James Hahn walked off the final green at Riviera Country Club on a rainy Sunday afternoon this past February, bounced up the 53 steps toward the clubhouse and immediately asked an official where he stood after a final-round, 2-under 69. With a few groups still left to finish at the Northern Trust Open, he was concerned about residuals like ranking points and keeping his card. But there was another reason for the query: He wanted to know how much money he would take home.

Hahn's score was enough to reach a three-man playoff, and with birdies on each of the two extra holes, he locked up his first career title and $1,206,000.

His path to the PGA Tour was overrun with plenty of potholes. After spending years on the mini-tour grind, he at one point nearly cleaned out his bank account to pay for a tournament entry fee. His professional career was even interrupted for a stint as a Nordstrom shoe salesman.

When Hahn finally earned his PGA Tour card three years ago, he declined the direct deposit option for his payments. Having toiled for so long with so little to his name, he remained motivated by the prospect of someday opening an envelope containing a check with seven figures. Not long after surviving the Northern Trust playoff, that's exactly what happened.

"It was something I'd dreamt about; it was a goal of mine to see $1 million come in one check," he recalls. "And it actually happened. Going to the bank and depositing it, I was like, 'Uh, yeah, I'd like to deposit this.' Just seeing the bank teller's face, it was like, 'Whoa, who is this guy?'"

The affable Californian punctuated his story with a broad smile, a universal gesture of anyone who starts earning hefty paychecks playing golf for a living. And a romantic notion seems to still exist where we envision tournament champions triumphantly leaving the golf course, Happy Gilmore style, with an oversized check wedged into the backseat of a courtesy car as they merrily flee the scene. The reality? Most players simply check the direct deposit on their smartphones before being whisked away in a private jet.

Regardless of the dream or reality, money can remain a significant motivational factor. And the juxtaposition also leads to a conundrum: Are today's players more motivated because there is more money to be earned, or less motivated because there is enough to be spread around? Does money even motivate them at all? It's the subject of some widely varying opinions.

In the 18 years since Tiger Woods won his first major championship, it has become industry standard for a tournament champion to receive a seven-figure paycheck. But the Masters Tournament, PGA Championship and this week's Players Championship have upped the ante. The runner-up at each event, a player who might lose by 3 or 5 or even 10 strokes, will also cash a million bucks.

And there has been way more giving than taking in recent years. The PGA Tour is expected to award more than $317 million in total purse money during the 2014-15 season that concludes in September, including the $10 million purses at the Masters, PGA Championship and Players Championship. That's a more than 400 percent increase from Woods' 1996 rookie season, when the total purse money was $68,800,000.

"That's crazy," says Webb Simpson.

"That's ridiculous," adds Zach Johnson.

"That," says Pat Perez, ever the speaker of truth, "is fantastic, is what it is."

He's right, at least from a player's perspective. If money makes the world go 'round, then such audacious payouts keep the PGA Tour dizzily spinning from one cash-laden week to the next. When the United States endured an economic downturn in recent years, Ponte Vedra Beach executives didn't just retain sponsors and maintain purses, they actually increased them.

"Anyone who says they're not playing for money is a liar. If they don't say it, it's because they don't want to look bad. If people didn't care about money, we'd all play for free. And then what, get a night job? Who doesn't play for money?" Pat Perez on the effect money has on PGA Tour players

For this reason, and especially for the Tiger era boom that led to heftier television contracts and more sponsorships, the career earnings list remains quizzically skewed. James Driscoll, who has never won a tournament, ranks higher than Jack Nicklaus; Colt Knost is above Arnold Palmer; Alex Prugh has surpassed Gary Player. While some of that can be explained by inflation, it doesn't hide the fact that modern-day pros have a much easier route to the highest tax bracket than their predecessors.

"The big tournaments are a joke," says Johnson, whose $34.6 million ranks 11th all-time. "It's pretty ridiculous, the fact that I can go play and have an average finish of, say, like 25th, and still make this much money for hitting a golf ball, chasing it and hitting it again."

Even those without colossal bankrolls don't take it for granted.

"I make way too much money for somebody my age," says Robert Streb, who, at 28, has earned more than $3.5 million in his career. "And I'm pretty far down the totem pole compared to a lot of guys. It's awesome; you want to cash in while you can. I try not to think about the money, but it's a pretty good living."

"Anyone who says they're not playing for money is a liar," Perez says with a growl. "If they don't say it, it's because they don't want to look bad. If people didn't care about money, we'd all play for free. And then what, get a night job? Who doesn't play for money?"

Perez has earned more than $16 million in his PGA Tour career, eclipsing the $1-million mark eight times in a season and surpassing $500,000 every year since earning his card in 2002.

"Everybody's got to eat, everybody's got to drive a car," he says. "It takes one thing to do all of that -- money. I love the game, but I love to make a lot of money playing it, too. If money wasn't a motivator, we wouldn't have a money list. Think about that: Our job is based on a money list. It's black and white."

Perez is hardly alone in this assessment.

"We don't play for the love of the game, we play for the money," insists 30-year-old pro Charlie Beljan. "Everybody sees the big-money putts go in at the end; they don't see the travel, the hotels, the hours of practice.

"I enjoy being in [in contention] coming down the stretch, but I don't enjoy the everyday grind. I play for the money. If we all love the game, why are we playing for money? Why aren't we all amateurs? I play for trophies; I play to get to the Masters. But at the end of the day, we all still have to pay bills. I would love to have a long career out here and have a couple of bucks, so that when I'm 45 or 50, I could just call it quits."

"I'm out here because this is my dream," says Chesson Hadley, who has earned more than $2.5 million in less than 50 PGA Tour starts. "But part of my dream is that I wanted to be successful and make lots of money. That's always been a part of what's driven me to be successful."

Of course, the more money a player has earned might be inversely proportional to how much it can motivate him.

"When I was first a rookie on tour, trying to keep my card, every putt meant dollars," says Brandt Snedeker, whose $25 million in career earnings doesn't even include the $10 million bonus he received for winning the 2012 FedEx Cup. "But the guys who are worried about how much they made and how much that last putt cost them, the guys who are worried about mortgage payments, they don't last very long. I learned a long time ago to stop worrying about that."

Money can be a motivating factor, but more because of what it can accomplish than the money itself. From helping a player retain his playing privileges to pushing him into bigger tournaments, it's often about what the payout can mean to a career.

"My answer is going to be different than a guy who is 200th in the world and trying to keep his card every year," says Webb Simpson, who has cashed just shy of $20 million in his career. "For them, it's everything in terms of job security and being able to do what they love. For me, it's about the process. Once you get to top-50 in the world and play great tournaments all the time, you think more about where you're finishing and your world ranking than the money."

Here's a little experiment for any recreational golfer: Tee it up with a few buddies for nothing but a little fun. No wagering. No automatic two-down presses, no sandies, no barkies. Nothing.

Then tee it up with the same buddies for ... something. Call it a $10 nassau. Or $5. Or, even just a quarter. Here's all it needs to be, in the famous words of longtime Tuesday money game organizer Phil Mickelson: "Enough to keep you interested, but not enough to make you uncomfortable."

Bottom line: Whether it's you or Lefty, you feel something when your performance is connected to a monetary value. And even the world's best golfers are not immune to such feelings.

On a Sunday afternoon, when they're playing the back-nine of a tournament and have no chance of winning, oftentimes the sole motivation is money.

"When you're in 35th place," says Justin Leonard, "and you're going to the back nine and say, 'I want to make two or three birdies so I can get into the top-20,' is that so it's a top-20 finish? No. At that point, you're thinking, that's a difference of 20, 30, 40 grand."

Hadley agrees.

"When you're in 35th place and you're going to the back nine and say, 'I want to make two or three birdies so I can get into the top-20,' is that so it's a top-20 finish? No. At that point, you're thinking, that's a difference of 20, 30, 40 grand." Justin Leonard on how money enters the thought process at a PGA Tour event

"Let's say you're 25th going into the last day, you're probably not going to win. Your motivation is to go shoot a low number so that you can make some dough."

Don't confuse playing for money with playing not to win. In these scenarios, the players are already eliminated from that possibility. When there's a title at stake, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find a contender who's trying to protect his paycheck.

At this year's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Hadley was in second place coming to the iconic par-5 closing hole. The prospect of playing it safe and guaranteeing a big payday never crossed his mind as he stood over his second shot.

"It wasn't overly aggressive for me to go for it, but I hooked it into the water and made double," he recalls. "I threw away probably 200 grand. That's just the nature of the beast."

Just a few weeks ago, Johnson Wagner faced a similar scenario at the Shell Houston Open. Trailing by a stroke on the treacherous final hole, he hit an aggressive birdie putt that was never going to be short of the cup. It went in, and he reached a playoff.

"I'm playing out of 126-150 [money list] category, so every dollar is huge," he said. "If I 3-putt by trying to make it and run it by, I probably lose a lot of money. But the only thing that was on my mind was making that putt and getting into a playoff. I didn't give a [damn] about how much I made. At that moment, I was trying to win.

"If I ever get to the point where I lag that putt down there to protect a third-place finish, I'm going to quit playing golf."

If there's an exception -- and an exception with an asterisk, at that -- it might come at an event like this week's Players Championship.

There exists a hypothetical scenario in which a player could be trailing by multiple strokes going to the 18th hole, a long par-4 guarded by water on the left side. If first place is out of reach, conservatively playing for second -- and that $1 million-plus payday -- might be a viable option.

"I might think about it there," suggests Simpson. "If you could make bogey to finish second alone and the guy in first was already going to win, your aim would be right edge of the fairway instead of 5 yards inside, maybe 3-wood off the tee instead of driver."

Not everyone can be Woods, who has cashed more than 100 million dollars in earnings on the PGA Tour alone. For many of these players, a torrid Sunday back-nine might not mean a trophy, but considering today's outrageous purses, it could mean a new car or an addition to their house.

"I do it for the money," Beljan says. "I'm not afraid to say it. It's a job. It's work."

Even for a guy like Hahn, who nearly depleted his savings and was selling shoes for a living, it's important to understand the value of using money as a motivational tool.

"In relation to my bank account, it's not as significant as it would have been 10 years ago," he says. "First year on the PGA Tour, I was thinking about that all the time. You know, missed a birdie putt on the last hole -- let's see how much money that would have been if I made it.

"I think it's pretty cool how much we're playing for now. It's a whole lot of money."