Kyle Stanley had his first PGA Tour win in the bag. In fact, the organizers of the Farmers Insurance Open were so sure of it that, late on Sunday afternoon of the 2012 edition, they had already inked his name on the large novelty check presented to the winner at the end of the tournament.
It was a first-of-its-kind jinx.
Stanley melted down on the 72nd hole of the championship, dropping a ball in the drink guarding the par-5 finisher en route to a triple bogey. He landed in a playoff with Brandt Snedeker, who disposed of the shell-shocked sophomore in two holes.
Were it not for a curious journalist who tweeted a picture of the prematurely exchequlated check, no one would have ever known the Curse of the Novelty Note. It'd seem that the folks at the PGA Tour's San Diego stop might have just stopped the practice altogether, shunning the checks for a simple trophy presentation. Nope. The next year, Tiger Woods received a large, non-tender check for $1.08 million as champion of the event he had just won for the seventh time.
Curiously, the year prior to Stanley's misfortune, champion Bubba Watson was awarded a blank check along with his trophy. It would seem officials thought Phil Mickelson had a legit chance to hole out his final shot for a playoff-enducing eagle. Perhaps caddie Jim Mackay tending the flag for the 75-yard shot convinced officials to wait, leading to the embarrassing wire photo of the future Masters winner holding a check made out to no one in particular.
This past Sunday at the Farmers Insurance Open, Scott Stallings rallied from 3 strokes down to win for the third time on the PGA Tour. He got a check, too. It's a rare thing these days on the PGA Tour.
Despite what you've seen after two of the first four PGA Tour events of 2014, a big, fat, fake check is becoming an anachronism. By the PGA Tour's count, just a little more than a half-dozen of its tournaments still hand them out to their champions. The PGA Tour's championship management arm, which runs about 10 tournaments on the schedule, has a policy of no longer handing out winner's checks. That's why, despite our protestations of how cool it would be, the FedEx Cup will never be decided with a $10 million stack in the background.
It's not as though this was an overnight policy shift for the Tour. It's just something people haven't noticed. So maybe it wasn't all that important to begin with, but external events affecting the Tour's reputation might have inspired a more keen eye.
Retiring Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn made the PGA Tour one of his targets in September when he authored proposed legislation which would eliminate a sports league's ability to qualify for a tax-free designation as what amounts to a trade organization. Among litany jabs at the Tour, Coburn suggested players are paid handsomely with seven-figure first-place prizes while charities rarely receive the same level of financial benefits from these tournaments as the players.
In December, ESPN's Outside the Lines conducted its own investigation, suggesting the overhead costs paid to run the PGA Tour's events put on by 501(c)(3) charitable organizations is simply not in line with broader philanthropy. Of course, the nature of running a golf tournament is simply an inappropriate comparison, while the author of the piece somewhat blended an investigation of the tournaments themselves with the PGA Tour, which is a 501(c)(6) organization, and subject to different qualifications.
Those recent PR problems aside, it's just not a good time to be ostentatiously handing out large novelty checks for million-plus-dollar sums.
While the disorganized notion of Occupy Wall Street may have failed to codify into a long-running movement, the idea of The 1 Percent has remained a discussion point among The 100 Percent, including a number of recent high-profile shots back from wealthy Americans about their supposed persecution from those with less voice and smaller bank account balances. There are plenty of millionaires on the PGA Tour, with about 100 players earning (not netting) that much each year. Announcing the creation -- or replenishment -- of another millionaire each week just seems to be asking for problems. It doesn't seem quite the same as winning "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?".
Even the philanthropic community is shunning the notion of the giant ceremonial check. In the age of Kickstarter and crowd-funded projects, donors, even those with little money to give, are demanding more return on their in-demand dollars than it to simply be lumped anonymously into a presentation at some photo opp event. They want PBS-style gifts or some kind of credit for their money. They want choices on how on their money is spent. Tote boards and big checks are becoming a thing of the past.
Nonetheless, there are still some events that dutifully hand out a big winner's check each year. The Sony Open does it, so, too, does the John Deere Classic, which has one of the lowest purses on the PGA Tour. Jordan Spieth won $828,000 last year for becoming the youngest PGA Tour winner in the modern era. The only events that pay less to their champions are opposite-field events like those in Reno-Tahoe and Puerto Rico, which hands out a novelty check to its winners. The Wyndham Championship, which, like the Deere, is a purse outlier in still only paying a six-figure first-place prize, also hands out checks.
But that's not to say that the size of the prize determines the size -- or very existence -- of the check. They're a rare sight on any other major tour. Frankly, the idea just seems tacky now, derived from the montage scene out of "Happy Gilmore," where Adam Sandler's title character racks up faux check after faux check because he convinced tournaments to give his winnings the equally glamorous treatment as that week's winner.
Not handing out a check also offers a certain dignity to the winner. It allows the focus to be on the accomplishment of winning the tournament, not the trip to the bank as a result of it. The dig on so many players these days is that they're in it for the money more than the championships. That's an irony, among many, of the Tiger Woods Era: Woods' massive popularity forged the opportunity to play for once ungodly sums of money, but his dominance created this persistent notion that the rest of his peers are playing for the still-lucrative second place.
There may be some resigned to that idea, but three-time major winner Padraig Harrington isn't one of them. He made most of his major-championship hay with Woods on the disabled list, winning back-to-back majors in 2008, but he admits that the fortune it afforded him is way more than he deserves.
“I thinks all sportspeople would play their sport for a lot less," Harrington said in a recent interview in Ireland. “Ultimately we are overpaid, grossly overpaid. I’d certainly play for free."