Last November, I walked with golfer Padraig Harrington as we stepped out of the elevator at The Palace of the Lost City, ambled through the magnificent lobby, stopped in front of a procession of BMWs, climbed into a brand new X3, and were chauffeur-driven 500m to the first tee of the Lost City Golf Club.
And we spoke about poverty.
Professional golf exists in a strange world where the opulence can border on the point of being offensive, but where collectively it is arguably the biggest charitable vehicle of all the professional sports.
Last year, the PGA Tour reached $2 billion in all-time charitable giving since its first donation in 1938. The same PGA Tour where a player can have a “disastrous” season and lose his tour card, but still end the year a millionaire.
Harrington struggles with this concept as much as most of us.
“In 1992, as an amateur, I remember playing in Calcutta. We stayed in a five-star hotel, and were looked after five-star all the way. But there was some abject poverty between the hotel and the golf course. It’s difficult to play golf in that situation.”
In this sense, professional golf can be an easy target. The world’s top golfers live in a cocoon of comfort. They generate incredible wealth through massive prize money and endorsements.
There is nothing normal about the lives they lead.
So when a professional golf tournament comes to town, offering R18.5 million in total prize money and R2.9m to the winner as in the Tshwane Open, it’s easy to point a finger and say “Why not build houses for the poor instead?” or “Fix the pothole outside my house before wasting the money on a golf tournament”.
But as Harrington pointed out, “you have to compartmentalise it. It’s like a lot of things in life. You can’t contemplate it too much, for sure. But golf gives us that opportunity. There’s no doubt, in a practical sense you would suggest we are overpaid for our ability to hit a little white golf ball. It would be hard if you just kept taking.”
So what does a tournament that costs millions to run mean for Tshwane?
More than 217 million households around the world watched a four-day broadcast that is one of the best marketing packages you can buy in professional sport.
They saw beautiful images of Pretoria Country Club and the city, they heard of the City of Tshwane’s free wi-fi project, the A Re Yeng bus service and a host of other positive initiatives.
They listened to the mayor speak about his beautiful city, and international golfers do the same.
Putting your money, and often more of it, into sponsoring a rugby or soccer team will never give you that kind of platform. Where in the 80 minutes of a Super Rugby match or the build-up to it is there a segment of the host city and the messages it wants to communicate?
Media exposure from last year’s Tshwane Open was worth close to R60m.
According to an independent economic study conducted by Grant Thornton for the 2014 tournament, the total (direct, indirect and induced) economic impact of the Tshwane Open was between R54.4m and R98.4m for South Africa as a whole.
The direct spend amounted to R38.4m in Tshwane.
But one of the more significant results for me is that last year’s tournament created between 134 and 202 jobs.
That pothole in front of our house might still be there, but the man who usually sits on the corner waiting for work every day isn’t, because for four days at least, a professional golf tournament came to town.