By Brian Keogh
It’s slave labour!
That’s the frustrated view of former Ryder Cup great Maurice Bembridge as the greats struggle to make ends meet and feel under-appreciated and under-paid for their efforts on the European Seniors Tour.
While the over 50s play for a total prize fund of more than $54 million on the US Champions Tour, their brothers in Europe are scrambling for their share of less than €300,000 a week.
Not only that. The seniors also play up to three money-generating pro-ams a week for free!
And pipe-smoking Bembridge, who once held the course record of 64 at Augusta National and is now the chairman of the European Seniors Tour Committee, has made his views known to European Tour boss George O’Grady.
Dripping wet after the AIB Irish Seniors Open, where he earned €427.50 for FIVE DAYS work, Bembridge explained that up to 75 percent of the players on tour are losing money.
Bembridge said: “We really should go the European Commission and say this is slave labour because if you relate the time people put in relative to the amount they get out, it works out about £2.50 an hour. Minimum wage is about six quid or something.
“Only the top 20 can make a living. And we’d just like to create an awareness of that situation. That actually we are not all millionaires and play just for fun.”
Title sponsors AIB, second tier backers Greenstar and Failte Ireland and hosts PGA National enjoyed pro-ams on Wednesday and Thursday last week.
And while the players were getting paid indirectly with the sponsors putting up the tournament prize fund of €450,000, none of them earned an extra cent for entertaining their amateur partners for two days.
Known as the Friendly Tour for the camaraderie between the players, the European Seniors Tour is the poor relation compared to the megabucks generated on the Champions Tour in the US.
The big name European players have headed Stateside where they regularly compete for prize funds of $1.6 million with luxurious courtesy cars part and parcel of the package.
That has left the European Seniors Tour struggling to attract sponsorship and outside the three counting majors, the average prize fund at 17 regular season events is just €311,000.
Irish great Eamonn Darcy says that he fears for the future of the European Seniors Tour.
And while Bembridge points out that there is more to life than money, he would like a little more gratitude from the tour chiefs.
Soaked to the skin after finishing last of the professionals in the AIB event, Bembridge said: “Sometimes we have difficulty filling the field, getting 72 players, because people say it’s too expensive. Coming to Ireland is too expensive.
“You can’t afford to stay in expensive hotels or take a taxi out. I think an appreciable increase in the prize money we compete for would be appreciated by everybody.
“But we’d also like a little appreciation. At the moment, I feel it’s just that everything is expected. I mean, our guys are just are a little bit frustrated with it and that’s what the meeting with George O’Grady was about the other day.
“The Tour in Europe is based more around camaraderie and enjoyment of playing. It’s much more like a big family from the point of view of the European Seniors tour, rather than the American Tour, where they have to have their Cadillac waiting outside and have to have bananas on the tee and off they go and they don’t speak to anybody when they are done.
“When we’re done everybody talks to everybody on the European Seniors Tour and the pro-am is much more a part of our scene than the Champions Tour.
“It’s where we create the interest. It’s not where we make money. We don’t make money really.
“We try and give the amateurs a good time. If the amateurs have a good day, we have done a good job.
“We like to think that we should be more rewarded or appreciated in that regard. We play two or three pro-ams a week and nobody quibbles about that. We are quite happy to do that.”
Darcy will not be teeing it up in this week’s €206,000 Jersey Seniors Classic because it means playing at least three rounds with an amateur for a maximum pay-out of €30,943.
The Wicklowman has earned a weekly average of just under €10,000 for his 43 starts since 2002, making him one of the elite players who can afford to play the European Seniors Tour.
But Darcy said: “I would agree there definitely is a shortage of prize money. I don’t know how the 20th guy would finish up at the end of the year but he can only be breaking even.
“The guys play about 18 or 19 tournaments - flights, caddie, hotels, even doing it cheaply, is €1,500 to €2,000 a week. Maybe €40,000 a year.
“I only played 12 tournaments last year and I made €115,000. That’s a nice strike rate. About €10,000 a hit.
“Trying to play 18 tournaments and winning only €40,000, you really are playing for next to nothing.”
Less than half the players who took part on the European Seniors Tour last year earned more than €40,000.
Leading money winner Sam Torrance trousered €347,525 from 15 events last year, compared to the $2.42 million earned by opposite number Jay Haas in the US.
Explaining his absence from Jersey this week, Darcy added: “I’ll probably play another 12 tournaments, that’s all. What’s the point of going to these places just to play for that. There’s no point, is there.
“I’d rather stay at home and do a few corporate days. The bigger money events are here in Ireland, the Senior British Open and Wales.”
Cork’s Denis O’Sullivan turned professional at 50 and has made almost €1 million as a senior.
But Darcy explained: “Denis had a good run there and has made a lot of money. They talk to you about this being your pension fund but it’s not a pension fund.
“Guys are coming out here and they are losing money, so how is it a pension fund?
“That’s been thrown up at committee meetings, this is your pension, but it’s not.
“Denis has averaged €100,000 a year. Take out €40,000 a year expenses and €60,000 a year is not great.
“He plays every week. He loves it though. It’s different for someone like me who has played all my life on tour.
“It’s very hard for me to tee it up in a tournament for €200,000 playing five rounds with amateurs. Do I fear for the future of this Tour? Absolutely.”
Des Smyth has made his mark on the Champions Tour but he believes the European equivalent needs to condense its schedule to offer the players more quality than quantity.
Smyth said: “Maybe they should condense their tour a little and not play so many weak events. Then they can build from a position of strength.
“Obviously they need more players to play. But I believe Seve Ballesteros is going to play a few tournaments and Nick Faldo is going to play the Senior Open at Muirfield. There are bigger names coming in.”