As the coronavirus pandemic slashes a destructive path through society, and professional sports in particular, players on the lower rungs of sport are most vulnerable to setbacks to their immediate livelihoods.
At the top end of tennis and golf, multi-millionaire players have the wherewithal to withstand collapsed seasons. But, lower down, players have to grind out a living, earning weekly pay cheques (or EFTs these days) to get by. So, when entire seasons are suspended and cancelled, some of those players simply don’t have the funds to pay bills and put food on the table.
The cost of being a professional on golf tours is high, with travel and accommodation costs eating into the bulk of their earnings. If anything, the pandemic is showing up the discrepancy between the earnings of the elite few and the subsistence existence of the bulk of players that make up professional sports tours.
The Sunshine Tour, which is not one of the richest organisations in the world of golf to start with, has dug into its own savings to assist its most important assets – the players. The Sunshine Tour will give financial help to 167 men’s golfers, 25 women’s professionals and 90 caddies — with relief packages for the months of April and May.
Tour commissioner Selwyn Nathan did not reveal the full price tag of the relief package, but told Daily Maverick it was “in seven figures”.
“The money comes from our savings. We are a well-run organisation with very strict corporate governance and, thankfully, we are liquid at the moment,” Nathan told Daily Maverick.
“When you have people of the calibre we have that sit on the board in a non-executive capacity, you know it will be a well-run machine. We have money in the bank and so we have made this decision to support our members.
“The Sunshine Ladies Tour and the Women’s Professional Golfers’ Association (WPGA) have also dug into their coffers to help. There are between 90 and 100 caddies that will also benefit.
“Given the amount of dependents that each of the players and caddies support, there are a lot of mouths to feed during this crisis.
“We also have an amazing partnership with FeedSA, a charity organisation, which is taking food parcels into underprivileged communities. Each family hamper costs about R400 and their goal is to take 10,000 into the most vulnerable areas. We are supporting that initiative as well.”
Players are grateful and moved
Every player on the tour has different financial stresses, but there hasn’t been a dissenting voice about the decision to free up cash reserves in this way.
The men’s tour was just about to enter the African swing, with tournaments in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya and Swaziland. All those events are currently postponed and there is no guarantee they will be played at all.
“The relief fund they are offering everyone who is involved is fantastic,” seven-time Sunshine Tour winner Oliver Bekker told Daily Maverick. “We don’t know if we will be playing again in two months or six months, so it’s a difficult time.
“We won’t be able to make money for the foreseeable future so the money the Sunshine Tour has given to us will help cover the basic needs of a family. We have decided not to disclose the exact figure but it is enough.
“The staff of the Sunshine Tour has also taken salary cuts, which just showed the solidarity and the loyalty they have to us as players and we will forever be grateful for that.”
Leading SA women’s golfer Ashleigh Buhai has won three times on the Ladies European Tour (LET) and is in a slightly better financial position than many women on the tour. Yet she is also grateful for the assistance in these uncertain times.
“What the Sunshine Tour, the Sunshine Ladies Tour and the WPGA have done for all members is incredible,” Buhai told Daily Maverick.
“To come on board at such a difficult time is fantastic. They have also reached out to assist caddies who are registered with the Caddie Association, which is a huge gesture.
“For women’s golf this is also massive. For the players based locally it will help them to stay above water. For those of us who also play overseas, and can’t do that right now, every little bit of financial assistance will help towards monthly expenses.
“We can be very grateful for what the Sunshine Tour have done – I think they are the first tour to have done this. Hopefully, we will be playing golf again in the next three to four months.”
Heinrich Bruiners, one of the grinding professionals on the tour who relies a great deal on weekly earnings to fund his career, is another to be moved by the gesture.
“This is a massive boost for all golfers. All of us have to pay rent and many other expenses, so this will go a long way to helping. Every little bit helps,” Bruiners told Daily Maverick.
“For all professional sportspeople it’s really tough in these times and, personally, I am battling to stay positive and motivated at the moment. We have no idea how long this will carry on and that uncertainty makes it hard. But we have to find a way to be positive and something like what the Sunshine Tour has done will certainly help.
“They haven’t advertised it but the staff at the Sunshine Tour are also taking pay cuts to assist the players.”
JC Ritchie, who won the 2019/20 Order of Merit with earnings of more than R2.2 million last season, acknowledges that he isn’t reliant on the relief package to survive, but appreciates it will benefit players further down the pecking order than him.
“Any help from the tour is welcome and needed. It can only benefit players to take care of the people around them,” Ritchie told Daily Maverick. “It can make the world of difference. I had a brilliant season last year, but the relief package will help me take care of my caddie as well.”
Stacy Bregman, who like Buhai splits her time between South Africa and Europe, was also grateful.
“It’s an unbelievable initiative and it really means a lot to us as players,” said Bregman. “We don’t have an income for the next couple of months and we don’t know when we will be teeing it up again.
“There are some provisional dates set by the LET for play to resume, but whether we actually get back on the course by then is not clear.
“Financially, it will be hard for everyone during this time. Golfers don’t have a consistent income and our earnings are volatile because of the nature of what we do, so the help is really needed and appreciated.
“I also appreciate what everyone at the various tours have done and the way they have pulled together to allow many of us in golf to have a living while we are out of work.” DM
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