It's Tiger, Phil, the greats and no one else

When Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson step up to the tee at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Thursday, they do so as last year’s highest-earning active U.S. athletes. Forget that they ranked 135th and 12th in PGA Tour money earned; their fortunes came from tens of millions of dollars in endorsement deals.

Luke Donald, the first golfer to top both the PGA Tour and European PGA money lists in 2011, out-earned Woods and Mickelson on the course with $13.1 million in winnings compared to Woods’ $2.1 million and Mickelson’s $4 million. But Donald banked $29.5 million less than Mickelson and $53.5 million less than Woods in endorsements, according to Golf Digest.

In fact, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, whose income from golf course design, apparel and other businesses earned them third, fourth and fifth on Golf Digest’s top earners list for 2011, have more in common with Woods and Mickelson than the contemporary players they hit the course with all year.

Experts in marketing the sport name a number of different players who might be able to bridge the gap between Woods, Mickelson and the rest: Donald, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, to name a few.

But heir apparents have been talked about for years.

“Given the depth and breadth of talent on the tour now, I’m not sure these players will have the ability to reach those levels or sustain it long term,” said Holly Geoghegan, president of Golf Marketing Services, a publication relations firm.

Jordan Zimmerman, founder of Zimmerman Advertising, disagrees. “Who would have thought Tiger would catch Jack Nicklaus?”

Zimmerman believes endorsement success is all in the branding. Golfers, perhaps more so than other athletes, need style, he said. That style helps create a golfer’s brand.

“Too many times agents don’t look at their players as brands and don’t position them as brands,” he said. “If I were an agent, I would look at how does he dress, how does he do his hair. Those things are so very important in terms of likeability in the market.”

Geoghegan agrees appearance, in terms of differentiating personalities on the course, is important. One of the best examples she’s seen lately is Rickie Fowler, particularly in relation to his partnership with PUMA and its recently acquired Cobra Golf brand.

“Rickie Fowler is the cover wrap of “Golf Week” magazine this week. That’s pretty impressive,” said Geoghegan.

Asked how much of that can be attributed to his agent, Geoghegan relates a story about Fowler parting from Titleist for Cobra Golf, whose new campaign features his signature color -- orange -- promoting its new AMP series with the tagline “100% Pure. Fresh. Juicy. Sweet Technology.”

“Would [Titleist] have the corporate culture to do what PUMA and Cobra have done with Rickie? No. Whether it’s his agent finding the right match versus maybe chasing the dollars -- that’s a question mark. From my perspective, how you brand the right personality with the right product -- they created a home run,” said Geoghegan.
PUMA has done with Fowler exactly what Zimmerman suggests agents representing golfers need to be doing.

“Start with styling to differentiate them on the course. Next, position the player as a brand. If we’re talking Rory McIlroy, build his likeability. He can be the boy-next-door brand. The I-want-my-son-to-be-him brand. That gives you an unbelievable opportunity with the mothers and dads and will also bring kids into golf earlier.”

Although Geoghegan and Zimmerman agree golf lends itself to personal brands, Geoghegan is less inclined to say a young player like Fowler could challenge the likes of Woods and Mickelson one day.

“I think Tiger is a phenomenon. Whether we’re going to see another Tiger -- never say never,” she said. “But there were so many stories last year week after week. We’re already seeing it this year with Kyle Stanley, who had a collapse at Torrey Pines and then came back and won in Phoenix. It’s an incredible comeback.

“Were we talking about Kyle Stanley last year? Here’s a great kid with a great college career. There’s so much depth on tour now, that’s what’s going to be interesting to watch.”