Golf equipment companies pay professional golfers to play their equipment.
You already know this.
But what if there were no equipment contracts? What if money were off the table and professional golfers considered performance only?
What would the equipment landscape look like?
Would Titleist still be the #1 ball in golf? TaylorMade the #1 Driver?
It's all about the Tour
You're probably also aware that The Tour makes for a pretty hefty number on the balance sheet. Big companies have big tour staffs, smaller companies…um, not so much.
If the goal is to make an impact on tour, it sucks to be the little guy on a budget.
Performance or not, you think these guys are going to play your shit for free?
Those who can afford to invest heavily in The Tour do it because there’s no more powerful statement than being #1 at something…anything at the professional level. Few things make for better marketing than to claim a portion of the credit for a tour player’s success.
Pay to play is why my inbox is bombarded every week by a multitude of companies taking an ownership share of a winner’s success. Club, shaft, and ball, footwear and spike manufactures too…they all want you to know that the most recent winner, used or wore its product while besting the field.
The implication is their gear is ALWAYS a contributing factor to success.
Does the Gear Really Matter?
From one week to the next, would the winner still be the winner with somebody else’s gear in the bag?
Would Dustin Johnson and Jason Day win without TaylorMade? Jordan Spieth without Titleist? Rory McIlroy without Nike? Stenson, Reed, and Mickelson without Callaway?
It definitely has to be the clubs, right? What other possible explanation could there be?
Let’s table that discussion for another day.
The Pyramid of Influence
Whether it’s through club counts or actual victories, manufacturers know that the consumer will overlook the fact that between the hot melt, the grinding belts, and the drawers full of exotic shafts fit to the nth degree, the product in the tour player’s bag is comparable in name only to what’s on your local store shelves.
But if it works for a pro, it will absolutely work for the average guy. That’s the subtext. That’s what we’re supposed to believe…and the majority of consumers do.
You buy what you buy because the pros are paid to play what they play. Not all of you, of course, but the pyramid of influence is what it is because it works.
But What if…
What would happen if professional golfers weren’t paid to play nearly every piece of gear in their bags?
What if, freed from the shackles of their multi-million-dollar equipment deals, instead of seeking out what pays the best, the best players in the world actively seek out gear that performs the best?
Crazy talk, I know, but let me finish the thought.
To some small degree, that might be what's happening now with Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Tiger Woods, and others formerly bound by their Nike bag requirements. This is basically uncharted territory. One of the biggest names in golf equipment, one with a sizable Professional Tour Staff effectively disappeared from the equipment landscape overnight. Its players are free to play literally anything, and Nike still pays them as long as the swoosh stays on the hat (and the shirt, and the shoes). For this brief moment in the history of golf equipment sponsorships, money should be no factor, at least not for the next little while.
For Nike guys, the next round of club choices might actually be 100% performance-driven. Wouldn’t that be something?
Koepka has already put a TaylorMade M2 driver in play. McIlroy did the same (along with a fairway wood) this past weekend in China. Even if TaylorMade can't use it in its next commercial, unpaid validation is unquestionably the best validation.
Tony Finau is back to playing mostly Callaway. Michelle Wie is reportedly playing a mix of PING and Callaway gear. And Tiger…there have been rumors of Miura, some wishful thinking around Mizuno, and even some chatter about Mr. Woods being part of a group seeking to buy TaylorMade.
Somebody find me an emoji to cover that situation.
Tiger’s new bag is among the greatest curiosities in the sport. He’s still the guy that moves the needle more than any other.
The Real #1
With Koepka, McIlroy, and Wie already moving on and others certain to follow, it’s got us thinking about what would happen if this free agent thing caught on.
If equipment companies stopped paying for play tomorrow, which brands would fall?
Which would rise?
Who would be the #1 golf equipment brand on the planet?
Then again, what if every golfer stopped caring what the professionals play and instead took the time to get properly fitted for everything in the bag?
Now that would really be something.