Golf Monthly columnist and Sky Sports golf commentator looks at the state of the current professional game, and how drastically it varies from his time on tour

Wayne Riley: a different world

Oh how this great game of ours has changed. As a boy growing up, I was made to do an apprenticeship as a golf professional in a pro shop for three years. It felt like an eternity in a cell, but that’s just how I viewed it myself.

Although it all worked out in the end, things are a little different nowadays. Ian Poulter worked in a pro shop, as did Paul Lawrie and Robert Rock. They are certainly success stories, but, for the most part these days, things are done a whole lot differently.

There are still a vast number of talented youngsters who do their time in a pro shop (time being the operative word here). Don’t get me wrong, doing an apprenticeship in a golf shop is a great thing, if that’s what floats your boat. If you see yourself as a PGA Professional in the future, that’s great. We need you and we love you. But for myself, and I think I can speak for Paul and Ian too, playing the game was all that we were focused on.

These days, young, aspiring players stay amateur for as long as it takes them to suck up the game and learn, and that’s okay, because it’s all for free out there as an amateur. I know it seems a bit unfair on you readers, who indirectly pay for it through club subs and other things, but golf is a learning curve.

I suppose it’s best to look at what you get out of it: you get to watch the stars of the future, like Charley Hull and Matt Fitzpatrick, going on to great things right there before your very eyes, whether you’re out there watching it or sitting in your living rooms.

Video: Matt Fitzpatrick – life on tour

For me, it’s incredible to be out there watching a game that is developing so very fast. Not the sport itself – we know that’s changed with equipment, technology etcetera, and I’ve written all about that before – but the other related aspects. It has become so financial now.

When I started playing professionally, we drove everywhere because that’s all we could afford to do. We had to play really well to afford to be able to put petrol in our cars and feed ourselves. Sleeping in a car wasn’t out of the norm either. Everyone did it.

When I first started out I was playing a Pro-Am circuit. You drove for hours to get to a tournament and sometimes arrived at 1am. You weren’t then going to spend all that money on a room for one night. A lot of us used to travel in convoy to events, pull up in the members’ car park and have ourselves a kip in the back seat! Now they all have convoys down the runway!

These days, caddies fly business class and many players have their own jets – the ones who don’t, rent them. Prize money is just incredible. The amount players get for finishing last is the same as the winner’s cheque when I started out on the European Tour back in 1985.

Sponsorship is through the roof. The money for some is just jaw dropping, or mouth dribbling in my case. If you were a 25-year-old guy who came out on tour and played well for four years, then totally lost your game, you’d never need to pick up a golf club again.

At 28, you would own your own million-pound gaff and have a million in the bank. You could just sit back and contemplate your future for a while. I sound bitter, but I’m not. I’m just downright jealous!

This game of ours is only going to become bigger and financially better, because it is all so squeaky clean. These guys and girls are total professionals and sponsors can see this. It’s a promoter’s dream. The money is going to be massive in golf, even more so than it is now, in my opinion.

But I’m not talking about the money available in individual events. That will grow slowly, yes, but I’m talking about the number of events with huge purses. I believe there will be so many more of them going forward. The events we consider average will get much bigger.

I also think that appearance money will start to disappear and events will have the opportunity to hold all the aces. If the prize funds are big enough, top players will be attracted to play. And, because of that, there will be a lot of world ranking points on offer, so the top guys would be silly to miss out. If you don’t turn up to events with big world ranking points, you’ll soon start to slip down the standings.

With so much on offer to those inside the world’s top 50, it’s imperative that players stay there. If you’re in the top 50, you get entry into all the Majors and WGCs – the events with the best fields, highest prize pools and most world ranking points. It’s all linked.

Just for the record, my first professional payout was AUS $12.37 – and I’ve still got the cheque!