Brian Viner: Moolah... a sportsman's guide to getting your hands on it and then getting rid of it

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The Independent Online

Tomorrow evening, a professional golfer will be $10m (£4.9m) richer than he is today. Even by the absurd standards of remuneration in modern sport, that is an awful lot of moolah; such a lot, indeed, that it warps the senses.

On Thursday the following solemn observation appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune: apparently, Steve Stricker, one of the three men who began the Tour Championship at Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club, the final leg of the FedEx Cup, with a decent chance of collecting the vast jackpot, is a man so unused to major payouts that his "career earnings at the start of the 2007 season barely topped $10m". It's the word "barely" I like. Here is a golfer who has amassed just over $10m in prize-money being presented as a pauper, a fellow so on his uppers that a $10m cheque will make really quite a difference.

Still, in fairness to the Pittsbugh Tribune, Stricker's two rivals as the FedEx Cup draws to a conclusion are Messrs T Woods and P Mickelson, both of whom could accidentally leave a $10m cheque in their pocket and then remember it just as their trousers come out of the washing-machine, on a hot cycle, without so much as a fluttering of anxiety.

All of which makes it hugely ironic that the backdrop to this moolah-fest is East Lake, for it was there that Robert Tyre Jones Jnr, one of the greatest golfers of all time who never made a cent in prize-money, learnt to play the game. I had the pleasure of playing East Lake myself last year, and the clubhouse is more or less a shrine to Bobby Jones, who must be turning in his grave – with a perfect pivot of the hips, naturally – at the thought of such a colossal sum being banked simply for hitting a golf ball well.

Of course, it's sometimes best not to dwell on these matters. I got in a bit of a stew when I read that Roman Abramovich had offered the Russian football team £1m to beat England at Wembley on Wednesday, because it seems to me that international football is the purest form of the game these days, precisely on the basis that teams are not assembled by rich men, and I felt affronted that Abramovich's riches could pollute even a Euro 2008 qualifier. But then I realised how pointless it is to get pious about the influence of money in sport. Anyway, even if the story was true (and Abramovich's people denied it), a fat lot of good it did the Russians, denied their million quid by Michael Owen, who, if the stories about him are true, has probably lost that much in a bad week at the bookies.

I remember the whiff of disappointment that hung round the story that Owen was a dramatically heavy gambler. He has always seemed such a paragon of common sense, from his haircut to his post-match pronouncements, that it was painful to think of him chucking his money away. But as I wrote at the top of this column, lots of moolah warps the senses. And that situation can only get worse. The former footballer and now TalkSport presenter Alan Brazil, in his latest book Both Barrels From Brazil, asserts the first million-pound-a-week footballer might already be playing. It sounds crazy, unimaginable, but I wouldn't bet against him being right.

I bumped into Brazil a couple of weeks ago as he emerged from his breakfast shift at TalkSport Towers. He is not quite in the shape he was in 1983, when he scored the fifth goal in Tottenham's 5-0 destruction of Arsenal, but then nor are Tottenham. Anyway, we went for a (non-alcoholic) drink and he elaborated on his theory, while also insisting that he's in no way resentful of the wages these days. "The last thing I want to be is a bitter old footballer," he said. "Good luck to them."

We talked about the money available in his era and he told me a good story. In 1978, as a 19-year-old on Ipswich Town's books and the day after Ipswich had won the FA Cup, he flew to America to play a summer for Detroit Express.

"I had no money so I had to borrow £40 off Eric Gates," he said. "Bobby Robson let me go, because he thought it would be good for me. And we earnt big money out there. They gave me a car, an apartment, it was great, and on the way home I remember sitting on the plane with Steve Hardwick, who was the Newcastle goalkeeper, and a guy called Ian Davies, who was the Norwich City full-back. They were saying what a successful trip it had been. One of them was going to have a new kitchen, the other was going to buy his mum a new car. That's when I reached in my pocket , and found what I'd managed to keep, which was $80, Gatesy's 40 quid."

In other words, then as now, some manage to hold on to it, and some blow it all. But it takes an awful lot more blowing than it did.

Who I Like This Week...

Scottish football fans, with several hundred of whom I shared a train to Paris last Monday afternoon. Most were kilted, all were in high spirits, and I don't doubt that a few had enjoyed a lunchtime tincture or two, yet there was never the slightest sense that they might get unruly. They fully deserved the night of nights that they must have had on Wednesday following the astounding victory of Alex McLiesh and his team over France.

And Who I Don't

The unknown rotters who spied on the Danish football team at the Women's World Cup in China. It is not entirely clear whether they were peeping toms hoping to see a bit of flesh or spies hoping to gain some insight into Denmark's tactics, or possibly a bit of both. Whatever, Fifa officials have rather ungallantly declined to follow up Danish complaints, maybe because indications are that the rotters were Chinese.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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