Just admit it, next week at East Lake is about the money

Justin Thomas, here this week at the second round of the BMW Championship, is a man who knows how to get a golf ball to work for him. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Justin Thomas, here this week at the second round of the BMW Championship, is a man who knows how to get a golf ball to work for him. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Credit: Andrew Redington

Credit: Andrew Redington

Apparently, rather than award the winner of next week’s FedEx Cup finale at East Lake $15 million, everyone would be just as happy with a big trophy, a hearty handshake and, perhaps, an Applebee’s gift card.

That, according to Justin Thomas, who has taken the “it’s-not-about-the-money” cliché to another level.

Asked this week about the huge bounty awaiting at the end of next Sunday at East Lake, Thomas declared, “I don’t give a crap about the money. It’s about winning tournaments.”

The second reaction to such patent absurdity – after doing an obligatory spit-take – is to conclude that here is someone who already has made more than he can ever spend. And at just 26, Thomas’ career PGA Tour earnings exceeds $28 million.

Thomas is not alone in downplaying the money. Listen to Brooks Koepka this week here at the BMW Championship.

Said this season’s best player, and a favorite to win the top FedEx Cup bonus, “Well, I can always figure out a way to spend an extra $15 million. I mean, I'm not playing it for the money. I don't tee it up to try to win millions of dollars. I just tee it up because I enjoy the competition, I enjoy playing the game and coming out here and competing.

“You know, there's so much money in the game already, it's not a factor why we play or why we do anything. I'm just looking to compete and win something else.”

This is an outlook that 99.9 percent of us can never comprehend – or believe.

It’s almost as if these elite players feel a need to diminish the importance of an eight-figure payday. Either they are slightly embarrassed by it, or they wish to wipe it from their minds, like it is some unwanted distraction. You know, try to ignore it, reducing $15 million into that itch between your shoulder blades that you just can’t quite reach.

When we’d have more respect for the player who would come out and say, “I very much do give two or three craps about the money. It’s 15-flippin-million dollars, are you kidding? Darn right I intend to give my accountant a hernia.”

Golf’s playoffs, culminating at East Lake next week, are first and foremost about the money. That is principal currency of their importance. No one much talks about the payoff for winning a major championship – Tiger Woods earned just more than $2 million at this year’s Masters, not that anyone thought to bring that up. But the entire focus of next week’s Tour Championship will be on the $15 million first-place prize. So just embrace it, already. Figuratively roll around on a bedspread covered in large bills.

The PGA Tour decided that the $10 million Justin Rose got for winning the 2018 FedEx Cup was sadly insufficient and upped it another 50 percent for this year. I don’t know at what point the payout comes into conflict with obscenity laws, but they might be entering the neighborhood.

There’ll be a $10 million difference between first and second next week. The top eight players will earn into the millions. Last place pays $395,000. No one goes home hungry.

“With the money, they are creating the type of pressure that normally players really only experience in major championships,” Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee said. “If you doubt that, you just need to look at what the leader in the FedEx Cup has done in the Tour Championship. It’s not unusual for them to play sort of lackluster golf.”

Chamblee’s point is that even the wealthiest, most advantaged of players may not be immune from the pressures of playing for the biggest of bucks. Since 2009, Tiger Woods is the only No. 1 seed entering the Tour Championship to actually win the FedEx Cup. The favorites have buckled. Last season’s No. 1 Bryson DeChambeau finished 19th at the Tour Championship. Average finish of the past nine No. 1 seeds at the Tour Championship: 14th.

Will one putt at the end for $15 million at the close of next week’s tournament turn a wealthy pro’s knees slightly gelatinous? Can the prospect of that kind of money get inside the head of the steeliest of pros and jangle about like loose coins in a dryer?

Koepka is not so sure. “Same nerves you have on winning any other event,” he said. “If you want to think about $15 million, go for it. I don't equate it to dollars, I just equate it to winning.”

At least Matt Kuchar admitted, “It’s a massive amount. Anyone in the Tour Championship is probably comfortable financially, but $15 million makes a difference.”

Thomas, who shot an 11-under 61 here Saturday to take a six-stroke lead into Sunday’s final round, likely will start next week high enough in FedEx Cup points to think about making a run for the big prize at East Lake. Should he win, he is welcome to turn down the money, and bask solely in the glory of the title. Or he’s welcome to distribute his winnings throughout the media center.

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