The lifestyle of the multi-millionaire, megastar professional athlete. A lifestyle that almost every child dreams about at one point or another. Sure, the real dream is to make that game-winning jump shot as time expires, or haul in that fingertip touchdown catch in the back of the endzone to win the Superbowl, or blast the 450-foot home run into the night sky in front of thousands of people. The crowd goes crazy, you win the game, the confetti pours down, the girls come running, roll credits.
But while you might not think about it as a 9-year-old in your driveway, a few years later, the teenage idolizes the cars and the jewelry and the clothes and the flashy lifestyle of the professional athlete as much as the on-field glory. And, in professional sports, the money flows like a raging river. Baseball has gargantuan, $300-million contracts for its megastars and insane spending trends (without a salary cap); in the NBA, it seems the stars hold the league hostage every summer as they jockey for max, $100+-million contracts; and in football, quarterbacks don’t blink at $20-million seasons, and left tackles get 10-year deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars (Note: unlike the MLB and NBA, NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed). Heck, the league mandatory minimum salary in all three of those sports is over $420,000, even for a rookie, regardless of how much the player contributes to the team.
Life for the professional golfer is no different. Just last month, Rickie Fowler earned a $1.8 million payday for his win at The PLAYERS Championship. In 14 events this year, Jordan Spieth has earned more than $5.69 million dollars, and sits atop the PGA Tour’s money list (through The Crowne Plaza Invitational). Golfers have multi-million dollar equipment deals, endorsements with high-end apparel companies, and some even have their own logo, brand and clothing line. Professional golfers are rolling in dough, just like the other sports stars … right?
The short answer is both “yes” and “no.” For the top professional golfers in the world, life is very, very good. Maybe not $300-million Albert Pujols good, but very good. It hasn’t always been that way on Tour, but over the last 15-17 years, prize money and endorsement contracts have skyrocketed, thanks, almost entirely, to Nike and Tiger Woods.
In 1991, Corey Pavin led the PGA Tour money list with a whopping $979,000, and the 125th player on the money list (the top 125 players earn their Tour card for the following year) earned less than $120,000. Seven years later, David Duval led the Tour with $2.51 million. Two years after that, in the 2000 season, Tiger Woods won $9.18 million (nine times what Pavin won in 1991), and the 125th-place player, Bob Burns, earned $391,000. This past year, the magic number to keep your Tour card skyrocketed up to $713,000. Even on the Web.com Tour, the leading money winners made over $500,000 last year, up 66 percent in just 15 years. Thanks to Woods, the opportunities for supreme wealth on the PGA Tour has started to rival those in the other major professional sports (not counting the New York Yankees).
But, when we dig a little deeper, cracks begin to appear in the “Pro Golfer Megastar” picture we’ve painted. For even the highest level of player – the certified stars on the PGA Tour like Spieth, Fowler Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and a few dozen others – the words “guaranteed” and “contract” don’t exist when it comes to on-course performance. Nothing is guaranteed for the professional golfer, and even someone such as Spieth or McIlroy can go weeks without making a performance-based paycheck if their game goes south.
Masters champion Trevor Immelman said the best advice he was ever given was to make every one of his starts on Tour count.
“When I first started playing professionally, the best thing anyone ever told me was to strive for absolute consistency. Don’t do anything stupid or silly, and be smart with your time and money. I’ve had my fair share of injuries in my long career…we all know that at any moment the game can be taken away from us.”
Let’s break down the profits and expenses a PGA professional might incur in any given week on Tour. First and foremost, for any professional golfer to make money in a given week, he or she has to make the cut, which usually means being in the top 70 after the second round. All pros outside the top 70 are sent home packing without a dime in prize money, on to the next week and another shot at getting a paycheck.
The 125th player on the PGA Tour’s money list in 2014 was 33-year-old Nicholas Thompson. In 30 events in the 2014 season, he earned $713,377 in prize money in 30 events. However, he only made 12 cuts, meaning that 18 weeks during the year, Thompson incurred all the expenses of a PGA Tour tournament week without making a single penny in prize money.
Every week on any of the Tours, there are three main expenses: paying the caddy, travel and accommodations, and taxes. On the lower Tours/mini tours, local transportation and food may also be larger factors, but the main three remain the same. The last-place player who made the cut at this year’s Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial made $11,830. But, with his expenses, how much did he really take home?
Right off the top, take about $3,500 for taxes. That number can be higher or lower based on how much the player makes in a year, but 30 percent is a good, general estimate. Then, the player has to pay his caddy. Most caddies are paid a set amount every week, regardless of whether the player makes the cut or not, and then a percentage on top for the weekend (usually 7-10 percent of the gross, depending on the finish). So you are looking at another $2,500 (estimated) to the caddy for making the cut at Colonial.
Then, there is travel. For the player that made the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., the week before Colonial, a Monday or Tuesday flight from Charlotte to the Metroplex was about $500 on American Airlines, especially if the player had to book at the last minute. Then, the player needed a place to stay Tuesday-Sunday (six nights) relatively close to the golf course. Assuming he didn’t want to stay in a roach motel, a safe estimate may be about $100 per night for a room near Colonial.
So, suddenly, without paying any of the regular living expenses – rent/mortgage, electricity, cable, food at home, groceries, etc. – the pro that just barely made the cut at Colonial and earned that $11,830 paycheck is really only taking home about $4,500. That, of course, is still a lot of money to make in a week, but it is a far cry from the millions the top players pull in weekly with a win or a top 5.
“There really isn’t any way around all those expenses,” said PGA Tour veteran and DFW resident Rod Pampling. “Especially for the young guys first coming onto [any professional tour], you have to learn how to live with winging it a bit. You might not know, for a while, when you are going to make your next cut or where your next paycheck will come from.”
One way many pros on the Web.com and PGA Tour are able to supplement their income is through endorsement contracts with equipment manufacturers and apparel companies. The large-scale deals obviously go to the mega-stars – Woods’ $100+ million deal with Nike, the $10 million deal UnderArmour reportedly gave Spieth, Fowler’s deal with PUMA, etc – but there is money to be made for guys much further down the list as well. Unfortunately, it is not always as much as a player might expect, or think he is worth.
A high-level executive at one of the major golf manufacturers put it this way: from the company perspective, endorsement strategies are driven by overall marketing and business strategies. For example, Titleist has long been able to claim the title of “No. 1 ball in golf.” Week in and week out, more players on the PGA and Web.com Tour play Titleist golf balls than any other brand. TaylorMade makes a similar claim with their driver. The question is, how does the company achieve this goal?
Titleist and TaylorMade don’t become tops on Tour by doling out hundreds of multi-million dollar contracts to all the players that play their products. That wouldn’t match their strategy. A company like Titleist wants as many guys to play their ball as possible, and, for the most part, they do not care how highly ranked the player is, or how many FedEx Cup points he has. They just want to be able to say that, after the data is collect during round 1 of a tournament, that Titleist was the most-played ball.
That means doling out $50K here, $10K there, $5K to players, not $100 million. It might cost $8-$10 million a year to get Mickelson or McIlroy or Johnson to play your product; think of how many struggling Tour pros or guys on the Web.com Tour you could get to play your ball (or driver or putter or wedges) with that same $8 million. It is a numbers game. The guys at the top of the mountain still get theirs (or rather, earned theirs), but much of the player pool is reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet, and funds are frugally given out. Free equipment? Yes. Large weekly paydays? Not so likely.
Making a living as a professional golfer is both living the dream and the ultimate grind, and it goes much deeper than just what we see on the PGA Tour ever week. Not only are there hundreds of players competing for one of those 125 spots each year (qualification for PGA tournaments is much more complex than just the top 125 on the previous year’s money list, but we won’t get into that here), but hundreds more competing on the Web.com Tour, the Adams Tour, or overseas in Europe, China, Japan, India, Australia and around Africa. And every one of them is an excellent player.
For Tour veterans like Pampling or 2004 British Open champion Todd Hamilton (also a DFW resident), getting into tournaments, competing and winning is much more difficult than what it once was.
“Making a living playing golf is a lot tougher now,” Pampling said. “The competition is much higher, and it seems the younger guys are much more ready to play. Plus, on top of that, I see major champions in almost every Web.com field. It is that tough.”
Hamilton is quite possibly the poster child for the ups and downs of making a living playing professional golf. After turning professional in 1987, Hamilton spent many years in Asia, playing on the Japanese Tour (talk about travel expenses). Before finally earning a more permanent spot in America, Hamilton won 11 times in Japan over more than a decade, but only earned about $6 million in U.S. dollars. Quite a nice sum, no doubt, but a fraction of what was made on the PGA Tour, even at that time.
Then, in 2004, Hamilton won the Honda Classic and the British Open, and earned more than $3 million on the golf course. His run on the PGA Tour, however, would be short-lived, as he has since not been able to eclipse the $1 million-mark, and is now playing on the Web.com Tour.
The thing about guys like Hamilton and Pampling (and most of the guys on any of the Tours, we’d wager), is that they love their job, if you could even call it that. You can hear it in Hamilton’s voice when he talks, the man loves to play golf. It is what he was born to do. And while it may be a grind, and winning money can be tough, it is still something they all love to do.
So, are all PGA Tour stars living in $10-million dollar homes, flying back and forth across the country in private jets or skating off to wild destination vacations at the drop of a hat? No. Not even close. But all of them are going to keep grinding, keeping fighting to make that paycheck, to keep their card and to keep playing. Because these guys are good. And they love this game.