The US Open and every freelancer’s worst nightmare

OpenIf you’ve always known the security of an employment contract, you might want to move on to the next story. This one may strike you as cheeky, perhaps borderline naughty, but you’ll probably wonder why I’m digging it up after almost 15 years.

If you’ve ever worked for yourself, on the other hand, and known periods of your life when no pay cheque could be taken for granted, you may well share my view that the naming and shaming should never stop when it comes to the biggest pile of steaming dung ever put in front of those of us who ply our trade in the creative sphere.

“We can’t afford to pay you as such but it will be good publicity for you.”

Whenever they find a freelance journalist/photographer/entertainer et al with a smoking gun in his hand, standing over a motionless body, rest assured those were probably the deceased’s last words.

Every freelance creative is spun this line, especially early in his career, when he pitches for work. They see you coming a mile off: young, hungry and probably desperate enough to fall for anything in order to get your foot on the ladder.

In time, you learn to employ one of two ripostes to this flagrant try-on…

1) “If publicity paid the rent, I’d sprint naked down Bond Street.”

2) “The companies providing your business with stationery, electricity etc – you’re paying them with publicity too, right?”

The sting of being played, however, is a scar on the memory that might fade but never vanishes. So whenever you hear that this ruse remains alive and well, you’re like an old war horse that starts pawing the ground at the sound of distant drums.

The United States Golf Association should have been beyond such a graceless stunt when they looked to hire a course architect for the 2002 US Open. Their ‘mark’, designer Rees Jones, would have certainly considered it to be a thing of the past for a man of his stature, with more than 20 golf courses on his career portfolio by the time the USGA’s executive director David Fay approached him in the mid-1990s.

For the 2002 renewal of their flagship tournament, the USGA had chosen a municipal as opposed to private golf course for the first time in Open history. Designed in 1936 by A.W. Tillinghast, one of golf architecture’s greats, Bethpage Black was a daunting monster of a course which carried its own health warning alongside the first tee and which clearly had Open potential. Heavy public use over the years had stripped the course of much of its shine and definition, however, and the USGA wanted Rees Jones to restore both.

Master storyteller, sportswriter John Feinstein, recounts how the job was pitched, in his book Open, which is where it recently came to my attention.

“Jones…was a bit nonplussed when he and Fay – good friends for many years – sat down to discuss the project and negotiate the fee.

“Because it’s a public golf course and I know you guys are picking up all the costs, I’ll give you a discount on my normal fee,” Jones told Fay. His normal fee was about $1 million.

“Damn right you’ll give us a discount,” Fay said. “I’m not going to pay you.”

Fay laughs as he retells the story. “Once he picked himself up off the floor, I think he got it right away,” he said. “I told him it was already going to cost at least $3 million just to move all the earth around. Plus, I said it would enhance his reputation not only…because this was the ultimate redesign project, but because he had been so magnanimous in donating his services. It would be great PR for him all the way round.”

Oh my. But then that’s what friends are for, right, David Fay?

Now, in fairness, it should be added that in agreeing to take ‘publicity’ to the bank, Rees Jones was playing the long game. Bethpage cemented a career niche that has earned him the label ‘Open Doctor’, as the USGA’s go-to guy for similar course restorations on the Open schedule, an arrangement which I’m sure has rewarded him many times over for this initial forbearance.

And I have every confidence that David Fay, like any other businessman, would have gladly given away a million dollars of his own time for the betterment of Society, had only someone asked.

Nonetheless, it is a salutary reminder to any freelancers reading this, whatever their own field, that there is no stone so lofty that the dreaded ‘publicity’ ploy won’t crawl out from beneath it and attempt to work its grubby magic.

[Sits back…slowly unclenches fists…breathes…]

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