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Volume 20 No. 42
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Change may affect future pros’ equipment deals

The hottest crop of college golfers in years has equipment makers salivating, but new PGA Tour qualifying rules could upset the traditional model of the equipment deal for future pros.

After this year, college players going through the tour’s qualifying school will be funneled to the developmental Nationwide Tour instead of the PGA Tour, making equipment deals with companies like Callaway, Ping, TaylorMade and Titleist far less lucrative when those players turn pro.

Equipment companies say they won’t pay the new pros nearly as much if they’re playing on the Nationwide Tour, where their equipment brands will receive far less exposure than on the PGA Tour. Equipment deals for new pros on the Nationwide Tour will pay around $50,000 or less, while new pros on the PGA Tour can receive $250,000 or more, depending on their name value. The incentives on the PGA Tour are much more valuable as well.

“From our perspective, it is just going to change the whole deal,” said Chance Cozby, Ping’s director of tournament player relations.

College players have traditionally had two routes to go straight to the PGA Tour. One is to use sponsor exemptions to get into PGA Tour events and make enough money to earn a tour card. That route remains intact, although it’s available to precious few college players who have the name recognition to draw those sponsor exemptions. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are those rare players who earned enough money through exemptions to win a PGA
Harris English (top) went from college to Q school to the PGA Tour, something that collegians Jordan Spieth (middle) and Patrick Cantlay will be unable to do after this year.
Photos by: GETTY IMAGES (3)
Tour card and skip qualifying school.

“That is a very rare thing,” said Mark Steinberg, Woods’ agent. “There are only a handful of players that have ever earned enough money in the limited number of starts to avoid tour school.”

The other route is to go to the tour’s qualifying school, a grueling three-stage gauntlet that for 40 years has rewarded the top 25 players with playing privileges on the PGA Tour. The tour, however, announced in March that it is revising Q school so that those qualifiers go straight to the developmental tour, not the PGA Tour, beginning in 2013. Those revisions are expected to be finalized this summer.

The rule change has agents predicting that many of the top college players will come out early and attempt Q school this year, while they still can take advantage of the old system. College golfers who don’t make it are allowed to return to school.

The talent pool of college golfers is the best it’s been in years, agents say, especially among the underclassmen. Golfweek’s ranking of the top college players lists freshmen Jordan Spieth of Texas, Justin Thomas of Alabama and Patrick Rodgers of Stanford among the top four. And that doesn’t include Golfweek’s top-ranked amateur, UCLA sophomore Patrick Cantlay, who finished as low amateur in this year’s Masters and the 2011 U.S. Open. Cantlay is ranked ninth on the college list.

“The freshman class is as good as I have ever seen, and when you add in a bunch of really good sophomores, the guys turning pro in the next couple of years is a really good list,” said veteran golf agent Rocky Hambric. “It’s a field day for us, but it’s one of those situations in which we don’t know what is going to happen because of this rule change.”
Chuck Prestigiacomo, TaylorMade-Adidas’ senior vice president of global sports marketing, said selecting the tour’s next stars is hard enough because, he said, nine out of 10 prospects usually don’t pan out. Under the new qualifying rules that will send practically all of the college stars to the developmental tour first, equipment companies will have an even more difficult time choosing which young golfers to back.

“Will you be willing to make the commitment for a long time and be on ice while the kids play on the Nationwide Tour?” Prestigiacomo said. “And that [question] will cause more anxiety for guys like me.”

Harris English, who finished his eligibility at the University of Georgia, was one of the few college golfers to earn his PGA Tour playing card at Q school and advance straight to the tour this year, where he’s already made more than $500,000 and stands 66th in the FedEx Cup rankings.

“I’m sure a lot of young guys will look at coming out earlier,” English said. “That’s what it’s set up for. Now, starting next year, you won’t be able to go straight through Q school and go to the PGA Tour. That’s everybody’s dream.”
The PGA Tour counters by saying that very few college players jump straight to the PGA Tour anyway, and those who do don’t fare as well. Only seven golfers coming out of college have earned their PGA Tour card in the last five Q schools. English was one of those.

In addition, of the PGA Tour players who advance through the Nationwide Tour, they retain their card the following year at a 40 percent clip, whereas those who made the tour through Q school retain their playing privileges the following year at a 27 percent rate. Two-thirds of the golfers on the PGA Tour played on the Nationwide Tour, according to the tour.

“We get the question about the college kids,” said Bill Calfee, president of the Nationwide Tour and a former PGA Tour player. “Are we stifling them? I don’t think so. We looked at it, and it’s a good thing to play the Nationwide Tour for a year — even if you’re a top college player.”

The rule change comes at a time when the PGA Tour is seeking an umbrella sponsor for the developmental tour at $10 million a year. Nationwide’s sponsorship ends this year, and a replacement hasn’t been found.

Calfee said the developmental tour should be more attractive to prospective sponsors because of the college talent that will be moving through the tour. The PGA Tour also will have three tournaments in the fall where pros from both tours will compete for playing privileges on the PGA Tour the following year.

For those players strong enough to go straight to the PGA Tour, equipment deals typically are the first and often the only deal young golfers sign when turning pro. Most equipment companies sign a handful of new pros each year with the expectation that the highest-rated players will start immediately on the PGA Tour, where the exposure will be maximized in front of TV audiences on NBC and CBS, as well as the largest galleries.

In the early 2000s, the top amateurs turning pro could get multiyear equipment deals that paid as much as $2 million a year over multiple years. Now, top players will get in the neighborhood of $250,000 to $750,000 a year when they turn pro, industry experts said. Players who are good, but not great, may get in the neighborhood of $250,000 if they get their PGA Tour cards but as little as $25,000 to $50,000 a year if they don’t get a card.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge for us [to identify the best prospects] and it’s going to change the landscape for players turning pro,” Ping’s Cozby said.

Said current tour pro Rickie Fowler, who left Oklahoma State early and qualified for the tour through Q school in 2009, “You want to go straight to the PGA Tour. That’s everyone’s perfect world. Not that a year or two on the Nationwide Tour is a bad thing — it’s a great place to learn — but the unfortunate side would be not getting that direct path to the PGA Tour.”