Financial struggles par for the course on Tour
For golfers like Peter Lawrie, the pressure is to keep on winning, says Dermot Gilleece
Fit, young and ambitious, he threw a backward glance at Pádraig Harrington waiting in the next group before proceeding to smash an absolute beauty, straight down the middle. "Would you like to hit another one?" the Dubliner teased mischievously as the rookie scampered off.
It was practice day at Abu Dhabi GC in preparation for the first full tour event of the New Year. "Guys like that used to frighten the life out of me when I first came on tour," said the winner of three Majors. Peter Lawrie nodded. He and Damien McGrane completed an Irish three-ball which would be extended to four when Rory McIlroy joined them on the second. "You've got to be mature enough to see beyond that one drive," said Lawrie. "You have to believe you can box clever and get the ball around a golf course."
The great irony, however, is that while standards are climbing every year, cash rewards have been tightening for the average player. Sure, the rich are getting richer, as we can see from McIlroy's hugely lucrative deal with Nike, but while colleagues further down the line are still some way removed from the breadline, they are feeling the pinch for the first time in recent decades.
Tournaments have been lost, along with prize money. And in providing playing opportunities for the latest recruits, the Tour's resources are being spread more thinly. As a consequence, the 100th-ranked player last season had to settle for €233,618, a drop of €80,516 from his counterpart in 2011.
After Abu Dhabi where he earned €19,799, Lawrie moved on to the Qatar Masters and a reward of €10,260 for a share of 42nd place behind 25-year-old breakthrough winner, Chris Wood. "Chris has obviously learned well," he said. "But a lot of young guys out here haven't a clue what they've let themselves in for. Managing yourself properly on tour has become more important than ever."
He explained: "I have things a hell of a lot better than the average Joe Soap trying to pay his mortgage. The bank's not knocking on the door and I don't want for anything. But I'm not living the life of a millionaire, which is what a lot of people would like to think."
Lawrie then gave a rough breakdown of the €614,630 he earned in official prize money last season for 48th position in the money list. A combination of wages and percentages of winnings for his caddie cost him close to €100,000. Then there are management and coaching fees – his coach, Brendan McDaid, was present for the week of Abu Dhabi. Throw in travelling expenses, including hotels and air fare, and when income tax and other deductions are accounted for, he is left with about €180,000.
"As take-home pay, that sounds pretty good," he went on. "But this isn't a regular salary we're talking about. I'm going on 39 this year and hope to have a few more good years on tour, but a professional golfer doesn't know what the future will hold. And I have a wife and four young children (aged one to seven) to take care of.
"I would consider myself fairly thrifty, because I feel I have to be. The few quid I had put by, I lost it, like so many people did on investments. Though I generally stay in the official hotel which is usually a four-star, the Scottish blood in me sometimes prompts me to seek out cheaper accommodation, depending on where I am. After 10 years on Tour (€5.3m in prize money) I'm not even near a stage where I can provide for my family at a standard I hope one day to achieve. I haven't got close to where I don't have to worry about money. That can happen only if I move to a higher level."
This means moving from Category 8 (top 115 in 2012 Race to Dubai) to Category 3a (winners of tournaments with a prize fund of €1.5m or more). In other words progressing from a lone tournament victory (Spanish Open, 2008) to becoming a winner almost every two years.
"That would guarantee me entry into such tournaments as the Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa and some of the richer, end-of-season events. It would also allow me to feel comfortable about my schedule and where I'm going to play. So I've got to look beyond pure survival; I've got to win again. Soon."
Lawrie believes that a player with top-60 status on tour for 10 straight years could earn sufficient money to cover himself for double that time. But if you happen to be hovering around 90 to 100 in the money list it's a different story.
"Last season, for instance, 115th on the list earned less than €200,000," he said. "Out of that, he had to pay his caddie at least €65,000 and probably the same again in expenses. That's €130,000, which left under €70,000 before tax was deducted. If he has a mortgage, he's just getting by with no chance of protecting himself against the rainy day."
It keeps getting tougher, however, as illustrated by 800 entries for the Asian Tour School recently and queues of eager young players lining up for the third-tier EuroPro Tour.
"We've definitely been hit over the last couple of years," adds Lawrie. "As a tour, we're just clinging on, given the tournaments and prize money we've lost. In these circumstances, I'd have to say that spreading the money around is the fair thing to do. I could take a more selfish view, but I'm not made that way."
Meanwhile, Lawrie has looked at other ways to increase his earning. The green shirt he was wearing will be his Sunday apparel in tournaments this season. "I've started my own little clothing collection with Glenbrae, a Scottish company which happens to have the only working mill in Europe."
Thinking of that youngster, and the drive that might have terrorised less seasoned rivals, seemed to highlight the way players change when the gun goes on a Thursday. Yet the triumph of getting among the survivors these days can be only the start of a grim, financial struggle.