Big Money, Big Problems
The inside story of how the Big Money Classic imploded, leaving players looking for answers…and $300,000 in missing paychecks
By Ryan French
“It seems like a tour comes along and doesn’t pay players about once every five to eight years,” a mini-tour owner told me recently. Last month’s Big Money Classic is the latest and maybe most outrageous example. It lured players into paying a $2,799 entry fee with the promise of a $100,000 payout to the winner, which is life-changing money to mini-tour grinders who often live paycheck-to-paycheck. But the BMC has failed to deliver: At least 24 players haven’t been paid their winnings; the host golf course, Orange County National, and the PGA section that provided rules officials haven’t been paid; and players who signed up for future BMC events have yet to have their entry fees refunded.
“I feel like we are kind of getting robbed,” says Nicolas Echavarria, who is owed $20,000 after tying for third at last month’s 72-hole event in Orlando. Echavarria’s entry fee was paid by a member of his club back home. When he explained to the member he had yet to see a dime, his backer didn’t believe him, thinking that Echavarria was stealing from him. After showing him texts from other players still awaiting their money, Echavarria’s benefactor got a tough lesson in the sometimes tough mini-world. And now Echavarria is worried about what the fallout will be for him.
How did we get here? The inaugural Big Money Classic was played Jan. 4-6, 2021, with a $400,000 purse. All the players got paid, though it took a while for a few. The sequel was announced for December, and officials also scheduled a women’s tournament to be played this month. Each was to have a $400,000 purse, funded largely by the $2,799 entry fees. (That is especially big money for the women’s developmental game.) Tournament officials also promoted what they called a Big Money Tour that would be played on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at courses near the corresponding Korn Ferry Tour Monday qualifiers. The entry fee to those events was to be $2,500. (Full disclosure: Last month I was offered more than $100,000 for the naming rights to the Big Money Tour and another $100,000 and a stake in the tour to be its tournament director. I turned down both offers.) It all sounded too good to be true. Turns out it was.
The top 12 finishers from last month’s BMC haven’t been paid. The list includes M.J. Maguire, who is owed $80,000 after winning a sudden-death playoff over Tom Lovelady, who himself is waiting on his $70,000. (Maguire and Lovelady agreed to split the first- and second-place money but set aside $5,000 to go to the winner of the playoff.) The four players who tied for third are each owed $20,000, and the four players who tied for seventh are owed $10,000 apiece. Some of the players who tied for 12th were paid their $6,000; others weren’t. Two skins games were built into the tournament format, one for $500 and another for $100. At least one player who won a skin hasn’t been paid. Among those who have been paid was a player who received his winnings from Zelle and Venmo in four transactions from a woman who does not appear to have a formal relationship with the event.
The man at the center of the storm is Dustin Manning, owner and operator of Big Money LLC and the Big Money Classic. He has run a small-time business out of Indianapolis training and supplying baseball umpires and worked as an assistant golf pro in the Jacksonville, Fla., area. Nothing in his biography suggests he has access to capital, but Manning told me last week, “My number one priority is to get the players paid.”
The short history of the BMC does not offer much promise. The first event was messy fun. An Instagram model MC’d a long drive contest. The pro-am featured vodka-stocked carts that drove around the course. Final-round tee times were pushed back two hours after a large number of players and BMC staff were out late the night before. Adam Svennson beat Josh Gibson to win the event, but the victor’s check was paid in installments over a 12-month period ($113,000 including interest, according to Manning). Gibson did not receive his $50,000 runner-up money, but according to Manning, that was because of a problem with the bank account Gibson provided. Gibson says BMC officials offered him $60,000 and to pay his entry fees into future BMC events in exchange for delaying the payment for a year. Gibson declined and was paid by the end of January. Manning had secured a verbal agreement from a title sponsor for the January 2021 event, but the deal fell through and then a private investor backed out at the last minute, which he says accounted for his money crunch. Emails obtained by Fire Pit Collective show correspondence over a year with a title sponsor. There seems to be a verbal agreement but a signed deal never got done. Manning says he has paid himself “no more than $700” a week and, in the year before the first BMC, traveled to numerous mini-tour events to recruit players. Manning also says he spent $88,333.13 in promotion leading up to the inaugural tournament.
And yet despite all the money he lost, he only expanded his vision. Was Manning a dreamer, just a poor businessman, or are his actions criminal? It’s hard to tell. My feeling is he just got in over his head, that doesn’t change the fact he put on an event knowing he wouldn’t be able to pay the competitors. That is inexcusable. The players? They’re definitely dreamers. And sometimes they are desperate. It is the desperation that makes them vulnerable. In the weeks leading up to the December 2021 event, Manning called numerous players in the field and told them private investors were willing to pay a player’s entry fee in exchange for a percentage of the winnings. Many said yes because it meant a free roll with a chance to win big money. Some negotiated deals of an even split after their entry fee was paid back. Others were stuck with lower percentage returns. All of these deals were set up in phone calls between Manning and the players. None of the players heard from the investors directly, even after asking to be put in contact with them. Those who agreed to the deals are among those who have actually been paid. The players I spoke with now assume there were no investors and that the ploy was an attempt for the BMC to pay out only a portion of what the players actually won. (For example, if one of these players had won $100,000, the BMC would only have had to pay $47,000.) Asked about this, Manning says, “I cannot at this time disclose who the backers were for certain players.”
As for the rest of the missing money, Manning is passing the buck, saying that Square, the financial services company that processed the entry fees, had deactivated Big Money LLC as a business. As a result, Square is sitting on $254,000 until Feb. 24, when it plans to release the funds to Manning. He believes Square incorrectly deemed the tournament to be a gambling enterprise. The Square officials I interviewed confirmed that $254,000 remains in escrow but would not say why they are holding the money, only that the BMC broke one of their rules.
Manning has called multiple players who are owed money, explaining the situation with Square and promising to distribute the money once he receives it from Square. But $254,000 isn’t nearly enough to pay all of the outstanding debts that even Manning confirms: At least 24 from the men’s event who are owed more than $300,000; Orange County National has received $8,500 but is still owed $50,289.41; the North Florida PGA section is owed $7,500; and 36 women have not received refunds of their entry fees, totaling $100,794.
The women’s event was originally scheduled for Jan. 12-14 at Orange County National. The field included numerous LPGA members, including Hall-of-Famer Laura Davies (according to BMC’s Instagram post). The women were then informed through social media direct messages that the event was being pushed back to Feb. 9-11. Now the Big Money Classic website doesn’t even list the women’s event. On Monday, a direct message was sent to all of the competitors saying, “Unfortunately we have had to cancel the women’s event as originally scheduled. Any participant that was paid an entry fee will be contacted individually by Big Money Events.” One player has said there hasn’t been much complaining on social media because, “Honestly, it’s embarrassing.” A male pro who is still owed $10,000 echoed that sentiment, saying, “I’m pissed at myself. There were so many red flags, but I chose to ignore them. Now it’s going to cost me events because I can’t afford them.”
While writing this story, I received a call from one of the women in the field. As I walked her through how to dispute her charges on her credit card, she broke down in tears. In the worst-case scenario, careers could be shortened because of this. I talked to one player who couldn’t sign up for Canadian Q-school because he hadn’t been paid by the BMC.
The sad thing is this is nothing new to mini-tour golf. In 2012 the National Pro Tour unveiled a nationwide four-day event tour that traveled the country. Tony Finau was among those who fared well. After struggling to pay players, the owner of the tour, Larry Lunsford, brought everyone together at an event and announced he was out of money. Two events later the tour folded. Multiple players were owed tens of thousands of dollars. The U.S. Pro Golf Tour made some especially big promises. Donald Trump was involved. The tournaments were on ESPN, featured crazy formats and offered a $1 million winner’s check. A year later Trump backed out. The tour named a sponsor whose stock was trading for a penny, and it folded before the next season started. Hundreds of players were out thousands of dollars. The Hopkins Tour, the Hawaii Tour…the list goes on and on. “It’s not good for our industry, it makes players think that all mini-tours are bad, and the fact is there are a lot who are very reputable,” says a long-time mini-tour owner. “It’s a bad situation for everyone when these things happen.”
Manning has retained both a civil and a criminal attorney. He says he doesn’t believe he has committed a criminal act but wants to protect himself. Multiple players who have not been paid told me law enforcement has been notified, including the FBI. Numerous players have retained legal counsel in an attempt to get paid. A messy situation just keeps getting messier, with no end in sight.