At Bethpage Black, Phil Mickelson, Rocco Mediate, Padgaig Harrington and others want to take the U.S. Open title away from Tiger Woods. But around the country a bevy of up-and-coming golfers seek to be like Tiger and challenge him not just on the course but also in marketing.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor, NYSportsJournalism.com
(Posted June 18, 2009)
Although not everyone plays or follows golf, marketers know that even casual and non-golf fans know about Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, which is why they pay him about $100 million a year to endorse such products as Gatorade, Nike, AT&T, Gillette, Accenture, EA Sports and others. His accomplishments on the golf course - 14 career grand slam titles heading into the U.S. Open June 11-14 at Bethpage State Park (Black), Farmingdale, NY - put him only four behind legend Jack Nicklaus. His marketing off the golf course puts him in a league with Michael Jordan, who not by coincidence is an avid golfer, but whose NBA career made him a global icon. In looking at Woods and Jordan there also is another unique connection: People are constantly searching for the next Tiger and Michael. Author Bill Echikson got an up-close-and-personal look at that obsession while researching and writing his book, Shooting For Tiger: How Golf's Obsessed New Generation Is Transforming A Country Club Sport (Public Affairs, Perseus Book Groups), which hit bookstores this past April. He followed the exploits of more than 3,000 teen players, all of whom spent as close to 24/7 playing golf as they could get, and got to know such teen stars as Cameron Peck, Peter Uihlein, Mu Hu, Devin Komline and Connor Cronkhite on the boy's side; and Vicky Hurst, Alexis Thompson, Courtney Ellenboggen, Kristen Park, Jane Rah and Michelle Wie on the girl's side. Echikson, who is director of European Union communications for Google, spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about why many try, a few will come close, but none may succeed, to become the next Tiger Woods.
NYSportsJournalism.com: In doing the book, what did you find out about golf and marketing and about kids and their parents who might want their kids to be the next Tiger Woods?
Bill Echikson: When I was [writing] the book, the thing about marketing that really stuck out in my mind happened when I was skiing in the Italian Alps. I went to rent my skis and I looked up on the wall and there was a picture of the guy who was renting me the skis holding a World Cup gold medal. I said to him, "What the hell are you doing here?" I even forget his name now. "Yeah," he said to me. "I was the second-best Italian skier. Alberto Tomba [who earned five Olympic medals, including three golds] was the best." Tomba was 99% of the marketing budget and the brand. To me that drove home a lesson about Tiger Woods. The pie is bigger in golf than in skiing so other golfers do very well, but it's a winner-take-all business when it comes to sports marketing. One guy, for a variety of reasons, transcends his sport, and that is what we are seeing in golf with Tiger. When it came to the kids, they were inspired by Tiger Woods. My own son, Samuel, is. Tiger is cool, athletic and he shows that you can make a ton of money. Some of the kids I was dealing with, MIchelle Wie or Vicky Hurst, are signing big contracts and are doing it at a younger age and on [Tiger's] heels in some ways. Marketers are definitely looking for that one special [athlete] who dominates.
NYSJ: Did you find, among the young golfers and the parents you encountered, that it was a realistic goal to try to achieve Tiger's status as perhaps the best golfer ever and as the only pro athlete who makes $100 million in annual endorsements?
Echikson: That's one of the things that is really dangerous. But remember, I was following 3,500 top-rated golfers. They all are good players. They all have amazing accomplishments. But only one or two will get that [type of] marketing deal. Marketers don't really know who it's going to be. They sponsor these kids pretty broadly, which basically means giving them free clubs and not much more than that. But the kids have it in their minds [about how much Tiger makes from endorsements], and Michelle Wie shows the danger of that, where the image has gone much farther than the actual athletic accomplishments. One of the stories I was hearing out there was that she didn't like playing, that it was her parents who were forcing her. There is another young girl, Alexis Thompson, who is 14 now but was 12 when I was doing the book, who is dominating the junior circuit. (Editor's note: In 2007, at the age of 12, Thompson became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open, but failed to make the cut. In 2008 she failed to make the cut by two strokes, but made the cut for 2009.) Her father is very ambitious for his daughter but is being much more cautious [as opposed to Wie].
NYSJ: Did you find more cases like Thompson, where she is winning, developing and progressing or more like Wie, where they are driven perhaps more by marketing and big pay days?
Echikson: The goal to become a pro is there, but most of them are realistic not necessarily about how hard it was going to be, but they knew that it wasn't going to come overnight. And there is a difference between boys and girls. With boys, although there are a couple of exceptions, basically you can't go from junior golf to pro golf. It's too big a jump, not physically as much as mentally. You see most of the top male players go to college. With the girls, in the pro ranks, the young girls are more athletic than the older generation, although Annika Sorenstam changed what was possible for women. In my book, the main character does jump to the pros right away. There are still a lot of questions about whether that is the right move. Boys can hit the long balls like the pros, but it is with the short games, the club selections and the course navigation is where they struggle. I've spoken with Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa, and they both say the girls should go to college first before become pros. Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel went straight to the pro tour and they sometimes appear more like giggly teenagers than mature superstar athletes.
NYSJ: There are 21 rookies on the LPGA tour this season. Has the situation with Michelle Wie, who was tabbed a golf phenom at 13 and who in 2006-07 was earning about $19 million annually in endorsements from Nike and Sony at age 17 but now, even though she is still only 19, has yet to earn a place among the sport's best golfers, hurt the situation regarding up-and-coming women golfers? For example, she just missed the cut for the 2009 U.S. Women's Open (July 9-12 at the Saucon Valley Country Club, Bethlehem, Pa.).
Echikson: That depends on the player and their individual environments. Vicky Hurst has the athletic skills but I'm not sure she is there yet at a maturity level. She has a very special talent. When she turned pro, she wasn't old enough to play on the LPGA. Which I think will help her because when you are out of the limelight, when you play in junior tournaments, you get to develop your skills in a more measured way. Michelle Wie never played in a junior tournament. She went directly from pre-teen to adult amateur tournaments. There was a fight between her parents and the [directors of the] junior golf tournaments who wanted to make her wait a year and play in junior golf tournaments. But her parents said no. These things come in steps. You have to gain the confidence, even if physically you are really good.
NYSJ: When you look at golf, can Woods sustain his popularity after he retires, as Arnold Palmer did, who last won a major tournament in the 1960s but decades later was still among the highest paid athletes in terms of endorsements?
Echikson: He will play a long time, have a gentle decline, and then still remain at the forefront of his sport. If you look at Michael Jordan, he is still a powerful brand but is not at the front of everyone's minds. He is not playing, so he is not on that center stage. In golf, you have a longer career and a longer residual value. He is 33, so he can still be playing until he's 50 and then join the Senior PGA Tour. This is not just about golf. In basketball people are looking for the next Michael Jordan. Is it Kobe Bryant? LeBron James? There is always one athlete who transcends his sport, partly though athletic accomplishments, partly through charisma and character. With Arnold Palmer it was about giving golf an appealing face. Much like Tiger has done. He has opened it up to a wider audience and broke some barriers. With Tiger, it is a combination of a terrific smile, terrific talent and a background that remains unique in a sport that was lily white. And in a sport with pudgy men, he is trim and fit. There is a lot to be said about that.