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A Good Name and Great Riches!

By John M. Ross,
Jack Nicklaus
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Can you imagine the prices Jack Nicklaus could command if he were playing in his prime today? (Courtesy photo)

There have been many emotional moments and enormous history played out beneath the tall pines at the Augusta National over the years, but the sight of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as a threesome in the early rounds of the Masters must rate near the very top in terms of impact.

The cheers of the gallery rocked the hallowed ground as they made their way through the flower-banked paths like three heroes coming home. More than a few found their cheeks had moistened in the excitement.

It wasn't a "first." That was last year, when the Masters committee, sentimentalists to the core, decided to reunite the three legends in a "Millennium Match." Over all the years, they had never been paired together in a major tournament. It was the Augusta National's special treat to the game, the type of thoughtfulness that has endeared it to golfers everywhere.

This year's encore was no less a lifetime thrill. Sure, I'd seen them in most, if not all, their previous Masters. I've been to about 34 since hitting the golf trails. But it was difficult for anyone who watched the game's Big 3 in their prime not to be swept up by emotion or turn back the clock for a little instant replay.

There was a wealth of scenes to choose from, since the Big 3 dominated the Augusta classic for so many years. Indeed, in the period 1958-66, they won eight Green Jackets. A 46-year-old Nicklaus picked up another, his sixth, in '86. According to reports, Jack's remarkable win had aging golfers everywhere dusting off the bag and clubs and calling for a tee time the next week.

While in a dream mode, I began to wonder what the Big 3 would do in today's marketplace, where millions upon millions are stacked to lure a "name" player into endorsing a specific brand of clubs or some other golf product. And where the speculation runs rampant on when Tiger Woods will become golf's first billionaire player. Of course no one will ever have to stage a benefit for Arnie, Jack or Gary, but can you imagine the prices they could command if they were playing in their prime today?The prize money on the PGA Tour is currently just a bit under $200 million and that's more than 13 times the size of the pot in 1981, when the Big 3's winning days were more or less over. In addition, today's tour players have access to enormous endorsement money, estimated at over $400 million worldwide. Put that much all together and it doesn't spell Mother, but it does add up to mucho, mucho.

The huge sums being handed over to the players has always puzzled me. Back in the days when I sat in the editor's chair at a golf magazine, I became fascinated with surveys. To me, they served as a valuable compass that helped us keep the ship on the right course. We studied readership: what types of stories did the reader like best? What how-to articles helped the most? And to help our advertising salesmen define our readers to potential golf equipment advertisers, we asked our readers about their handicaps, how often they played, what clubs or balls they played with, and what determined the choice of clubs or balls they purchased. The last question provided amazing results.

On this question, we had a check-off list of about five or six factors that influenced the golfer's purchase. The largest percentage by far cited the recommendation of a golfing friend. The club pro's assistance was checked off by a moderate number, and TV and print advertising also scored moderately. At the very bottom of the list - surprise, surprise - was the endorsement by a tour pro. It had the lowest score of all.

We did this survey at least once a year, reaching a cross-section of the magazine's readers from coast to coast, and the results varied little. The most consistent factor was the tour pro's influence. He had a lock on last place, and, apparently, did little to earn that fat endorsement check he had pocketed.

The time frame involved here was when the PGA Tour had a galaxy of big-name stars: Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, and the like, as well as the aforementioned Big 3. In all fairness to them, I must say I've never had the inclination to buy a club or a ball simply because it was the one used by a winning tour player. And I have seldom heard any substantial support from golfers in the grillroom for such a method of selecting golf equipment.

The reason is quite simple. To my regret, I've never been able to hit a golf ball like Arnold Palmer or any of the other big guns on the tour. Therefore, it will be my swing faults and lack of good golf skills that will determine how I strike Arnie's ball with Arnie's club. The fact that his name is on the equipment and that he has great success with it will have no bearing on my shot. And, more likely than not, it will slice.

Apparently, the results of our surveys, or others like them, never reached the golf equipment people. Or, if they did, the negative results have had little effect on the recruiting of top players to endorse the company's products. And no effect on what is being budgeted to attract them. Current estimates indicate that the golf industry pays out over $200 million a year for endorsements, and much of this winds up in the pocket of Tiger Woods, who has an estimated endorsement income of more than $50 million annually.

The staggering growth of the endorsement pot is attributed to the interest of non-golf companies in golfers. Insiders claim this amounts to another $100million, about half the size of the golf industry's investment. It is anticipated that the non-golf money will grow at a faster rate in the future if golf continues its recent explosive growth as a spectator sport.

The advent of Tiger Woods and his spectacular play has attracted huge new audiences to the sport and has sent TV ratings soaring.

These are people the game has never reached before, and they're not necessarily golfers. But they are mostly young - in that 35- to 50-year-old bracket that is pursued by advertisers with such fervor. Combined with the long-established factors of the golf audience like high income and well educated, it has captured Madison Avenue's complete attention.

Of course, the golfer has other things going for him, too. Most important is that he doesn't wear a uniform like the baseball, football and basketball players. He can wear his own distinctive clothes, and this enables him to accommodate sponsors' names, logos and the like. This is done with considerable restraint, but they do make the front of the cap, parts of the shirt, and the sides of the golf bag available.

The game and the golfers themselves do an exceptionally good job in monitoring this phase of commercialism. There's little chance the tour players will ever look like the race car drivers, who cover virtually every inch of their coveralls with sponsors' names and logos. At the Masters several years ago, I recall seeing one of the lesser-known players warming up on the putting green, and an oversized sponsor's logo on the back of his shirt caught my attention. He barely had time for a few putts before a tournament official discreetly took him aside for a brief word. The player then headed for the locker room and changed his shirt. No fuss. No threats. Golf is like that.

Indeed, it is the game's image that attracts much of the new money. It is a safe investment. Arrests are rare. Drug scandals virtually never. No brawling among the players. And you don't need an official every 20 yards or so to make sure the players don't cheat.

In addition to this, the sponsor can look for a long-term investment in a golfer. Unlike other pro athletes, the golfer can get started around 20 and still have a big audience when he's 60, thanks to the PG Senior Tour which welcomes him at age 50.

To underscore this, Palmer, at age 71, is second only to Tiger in endorsement income, estimated at $18 million a year.

Our old surveys aside, the Tour Golfer comes off as a good investment.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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