Justin Harding, a professional golfer, left his home in Cape Town the second week of January to play in a tournament in Singapore. He planned to play a few other events on the Asian Tour before heading home.
Instead, as of early October, he has been back to South Africa for just four days. He is not complaining. That constant travel means his golf game has clicked, and he has been traversing the globe from one tournament to the next. His year has included all four majors, including tying for 12th place in this year’s Masters Tournament.
“I never knew much about jet lag,” Harding said. “I was playing around South Africa and a few tournaments in Europe, so jet lag was new to me.”
After playing in about 30 tournaments this season, he is ranked 60th in the world. That is a huge leap from where he was at the beginning of 2018: somewhere around 780, he said.
Any week of the year, a dozen professional golf tournaments are being played around the world. Some are being contested on the big stage of the European and PGA Tours. Others are in golf’s minor leagues, like the Korn Ferry, Challenge and Asian Tours. And there are even smaller tours, like the Sunshine Tour, where Harding got his start in South Africa. For professional golfers, both young and experienced, deciding where and when to play is crucial. So, too, is figuring how they are going to get into the events that improve their rankings and lead to invitations to better events.
Harding, 33, will play in this week’s Italian Open, after playing last week in Spain. The English-born Paul Casey, who is ranked 12th in the world, will play for the first time in Italy’s national championship.
Having a big name like Casey, 42, is great for the Italian Open. But for the players, too much jetting around can take a toll. Several years ago Casey, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., gave up his European Tour membership (only to regain it later) to reduce his travel.
Irek Myskow, his agent, said the decision about whether to play was always Casey’s. But for the Italian Open, his sponsor played a role, too.
“Paul is a Rolex ambassador, and the fact that the Italian Open is a Rolex Series event helped his decision-making process,” Myskow said.
That ability to pick and choose is something afforded only to players in the top ranks — those who have secured tour cards that afford playing privileges. For younger players, having a plan to get to that level can be the differentiator.
“The single most important thing is to get a tour card,” said Guy Kinnings, deputy chief executive and Ryder Cup director for the European Tour. “You need to focus on that. What’s the route to the end goal?”
Matthias Schwab, a young Austrian golfer who is in his second year on the European Tour, said his card last season offered only conditional playing status, meaning he had to play wherever he could. In one six-week span, he traveled to Australia, South Africa, Qatar, Oman and India to play in tournaments.
“I played well in India, finishing fourth,” said Schwab, 24. “But you realize you can’t do that week after week. It’s exhausting, both physically and more mentally.”
Still, when he was trying to qualify for the British Open this summer, he played three tournaments in a row, the Andalucia Masters in Spain, and the Irish and Scottish Opens, because they had spots in the British Open for top finishers.
“I would have been better off taking a week off and been recharged,” he said.
Certain events offer more points toward the Official World Golf Ranking. The Italian Open has about twice as many points as last week’s tournament in Spain. (The number of points is determined by the strength of the field.)
These points are used to calculate a player’s ranking, and that ranking determines which tournaments he gets into, including top events. The Masters, for example, automatically takes the top 50 players in the world. (The four major championships, not surprisingly, award the most points.)
For younger players, the points calculation may be different. The Mutuactivos Open de España last week had “half as many world ranking points as Italy, but the field in Spain was much less than half as strong as the one in Italy,” said Andrew Chandler, managing director of International Sports Management. “The chances of a medium player finishing fifth in Spain is much greater than playing to 10th in Italy.”
And in Chandler’s view those points should be the focus. “World golf ratings are everything,” he said. “I tell my players you must not get hung up on winning or the Race to Dubai. Focus on world golf rankings.”
Prize money is certainly a consideration as well. The Italian Open has a prize pool of $7 million, compared with 1.5 million euros, or $1.6 million, in Spain. A major like the British Open had a pool of $10.75 million this year.
But there is a more blatant financial appeal to get top players to show up: appearance fees that stretch into the millions for a single tournament.
Experts said appearance fees were most common in tournaments in which a highly ranked professional would not otherwise play. Typically that means the event is out of the way or the prize money is low. Without top players, the World Golf Ranking points will also be low.
Yet pay to play is no secret in the golf world.
“When Saudi Arabia wants the world No. 1, 2 and 3 players, they pay them accordingly so they play,” Chandler said, noting that Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson received more than $1 million each to play there.
But sometimes, the fee is worth more to the sponsor than the player. Tiger Woods was paid about $3 million to play in the Turkish Airlines Open in 2013, but as part of that fee, he put on an exhibition: He drove a golf ball from Asia into Europe, across a bridge over the Bosporus. A stunt for sure, but one that Chandler said paid for itself in media attention. “It was on 92 front pages,” he said. Woods “got $34 million worth of media coverage in 30 minutes.”
Chandler said appearance fees started at $10,000. He said he had told players not to play in an event offering an appearance fee if the travel could harm how they were playing.
Kinnings of the European Tour, who once worked at IMG representing Casey and Martin Kaymer, said that for many tournament sponsors, the fees were wrapped into larger marketing agreements with the players.
“I don’t think players get paid just to play anymore,” he said. “I think they get paid to provide other services. In principle, you wouldn’t want to have that, but when players add great value to tournaments I think” the fees will always exist.
For Harding, his sights are set on the tournaments that will get him back inside the top 50 and guarantee a return to the Masters. Whether that means playing more or taking a week off does not matter to him.
“In January, I didn’t think I was going to be here,” he said of the Italian Open. “I’m just trying to make the best of the opportunities I’ve been given and make a go of it.”