Appearance Fees in Golf

Tiger Woods has received some very hefty appearance fees over his career.
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"Appearance fees" refers to money paid to a pro golfer just to show up and play a tournament. That means the golfer is guaranteed the amount of his or her appearance fee whether they cash a good check in the tournament or not. The way it works is simple: A tournament official contacts a golfer (or the golfer's agent, more likely) and offers money for that golfer to come play the event. If the golfer accepts, he gets the money, then plays the tournament. Whatever he might earn for his finish in the tournament is in addition to the appearance fee, which he is paid even if he misses the cut.

Appearance fees in golf, therefore, are literally fees paid to a golf just for making an appearance in a golf tournament.

Different Attitudes on Different Tours

Appearance fees are common on professional golf tours around the world outside of those based in the United States and are not considered against the rules or unethical or unseemly. Tournaments on the European Tour, for example, routinely offer top stars appearance fees, and do so openly.

On U.S.-based tours — the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour, primarily — appearance fees are considered improper and are violations of tour policy. Why this difference in attitude exists is hard to pin down.

But appearance fees are against tour rules in the United States largely in an effort by the respective tours to protect the "little guys" among tournament sponsors. Let's say Tournament X has money to spend on appearance fees — maybe it can offer $1 million to Tiger Woods or $100,000 to a star of lesser magnitude (yes, appearance fees can top $1 million). But Tournament Y does not have any extra money in its budget to spend on appearance fees, or simply doesn't have a title sponsor willing to spend that extra money. Is it more likely the big stars will play Tournament X or Tournament Y? The PGA Tour outlaws appearance fees in the belief that doing so provides some protection for the success of Tournament Y.

Loopholes for Golfers on US Tours

That doesn't mean golfers on U.S. tours can't pick up large fees for playing tournaments in the U.S. They can, and sometimes do, but the fees are paid in ways that technically adhere to tour rules. Example: Tournament X wants to make sure that the four biggest stars in women's golf all show up for its LPGA tournament. But it can't offer an outright appearance fee. It can, however, stage a skins game or a pro-am on the Monday of tournament week, and pay those players large sums to show up for that.

Or a tournament sponsor might offer a big star money for a "personal services contract" that requires the golfer to appear for a corporate outing — and, oh, by the way, the golfer decides to show up for that sponsor's tour event, too.

Another way to skirt the rule: A large donation to a golfer's charity. As long as there is no way to prove a quid pro quo —"I'll donate X amount to your charity in exchange for you playing my tournament" — there's no way to prove that an appearance fee was paid.

So while appearance fees are against tour rules on U.S.-based tours, in fact, many of golf's top stars do pick up de facto appearance fees through loopholes such as those described above.

And again, appearance fees are commonly used, publicly, above board, and without objection, on most other tours around the world. Sometimes, governments even get involved: To lure Tiger Woods to Australia, an Australian state government once authorized spending millions of tax dollars on an appearance fee.