Golf: Aura at Open is greatest reward

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STILL THE most prized title in the game, the Open Championship has been pushed down the league table of the world's richest tournaments despite announcing an increase in prize-money yesterday.

As well as the gold medal and the silver claret jug, this year's winner of the 128th Championship at Carnoustie in July will receive pounds 320,000, out of a total fund of pounds 1.85m.

Mark O'Meara, last year's winner at Royal Birkdale, took home pounds 300,000 and over the last four years, the first prize has risen by over 150 per cent. Indeed, when the Open was last played at Carnoustie in 1975, Tom Watson won pounds 7,500 out of a total purse of pounds 75,000.

The substantial increases in recent years have helped the Open keep pace with its fellow American majors but the Royal and Ancient have decided not to overreact to the huge prize hikes on the US Tour. Thanks to a new television contract, which fortuitously came up for renewal within weeks of Tiger Woods' 12-stroke victory in the 1997 US Masters, purses on the American circuit are expected to double within three years.

This season at least four tour events will have equivalent prize funds to the Open. The three American majors, which have yet to set their 1999 values, will be greater still, and then come the US Players Championship and the US Tour Championship. At the top of the tree are the three new World Championship events, each offering a first prize of $1m (pounds 630,000).

But the R&A are banking on the aura of the Open outweighing monetary allure and in the current holder, O'Meara, they have a champion of the game's most revered title.

"There are so many international players throughout the world," O'Meara said at Birkdale after his victory, "who have risen their game to an incredible level to make it a worldwide game. That's why this championship is recognised throughout the world as a great, great championship. It is incredibly gratifying to know my name is on the trophy. If you look at the names that have won the Open Championship it is a tremendous honour."

But the R&A know that to attract the best players and provide the appropriate reward for what is said to be the most hard-earned victory of all, the prize fund cannot fall far behind the game's other big pay-days.

However, the European Tour will use the prize fund for the Open as a ceiling when calculating Ryder Cup points. The points system, which is now based on the Euro equivalent of sterling prize funds, will have a maximum first place value linked to the Open which will come into effect for the three American majors and next month's Andersen Consulting World Matchplay Championship. The move follows representations from players, including Seve Ballesteros, to tour officials last year seeking to limit the advantage of the elite few getting into the big money events where the top pay-out could be as much as 12 times that of a win on the regular European Tour.