The inside story of tour player sponsorship
Sometimes it’s the very simple things in life that can thrill you the most. Hats or caps or maybe even a visor off to Rory McIlroy and his dismantling of the course, and his own mind, for finally getting the job done on a Sunday but there were a couple of other incidents at The Players that stirred my soul in an event which boasted a prize fund of $2.25 million.
Incidentally Branden Grace and CT Pan finished in a tie for 72nd at Sawgrass and last of those who made the cut and yet they still made more money than Diksha Dagar who made her breakthrough on the Ladies European Tour on the same weekend.
First up Aaron Baddeley on Thursday who, this season, has been sponsor-free on his cap. The Aussie has always been fairly clean in his lack of stitched-on paraphernalia, maybe a small bit of lettering on a collar, but now nothing.
Fast forward to the weekend and Ollie Schniederjans and another cap-free offering.
In relative terms of going back to the old school this was like dropping the ropes, having the fans walk with each group and, while we’re at it, we may as well let the sheep graze on the fairways.
“I stopped wearing a hat when I quit baseball when I was 12,” said Schniederjans a few years ago. “I never liked wearing a hat. And it’s just me doing me, and I’m comfortable with it. And I don’t feel like changing a whole lot because I’m professional.
“I like how I feel and look so I didn’t feel like throwing one on right now. There are things more important than sponsors.”
And there goes Schniederjans straight into my top cluster of favourite players.
Only last year all four majors were won by players with no equipment deal which, to some of us, is quite uplifting even though it’s just a bunch of multi-millionaires becoming, in the very, very loosest sense, ‘free agents’ (with ball and clothing arrangements).
But this is just a tiny percentage of golfers who play the game for a living. To give yourself even half a chance of making it in the professional world, sponsorship is everything. You’re playing for relative buttons and it costs hundreds or thousands, depending on which lower-tiered tour you’re attempting to get off, to even tee it up on a certain week.
The most common refrain is that a bit of backing could make all the difference but everyone’s different and, for some, being the recipient of some free money is more of a hindrance than a help.
A few months ago I had a casual chat with a player who has no sponsorship, is surrounded by and playing against peers who are well supported and have just spent the winter practising in Dubai, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You feel answerable to the sponsor. I had someone help a little bit a few years ago and, although it was great of them, I felt I had to answer for every disappointment or mistake and I think he thought he was my coach. What he did was a great gesture but I’m not sure if it helped in the bigger picture.
“Also, there’s just a little bit of pride maybe. You feel like you want to earn the money yourself to play and not feel like you have to owe someone.”
Another multiple European Tour winner is in the same camp so, while an easy perception is that they will all sign their lives away for a few grand or a new car or a holiday home or whatever it is, the old-fashioned way still has its merits.
“Luckily I had a good few first events when I was starting out and made enough to have a pot to work with. I’ve always felt self-sufficient. I’ve taken a few low involvement deals over the years for small amounts, usually doing a golf day in return so it was pretty much being paid for that and a few lessons.
“The one deal I had with a big hotel felt too much responsibility. I hated it. I think it’s about being self-employed and not being told what to do. If I hadn’t had that early pot I would have definitely needed help and therefore maybe not have bothered. I don’t like owing people.”
Imagine a world where players aren’t plastered with this logo or that. At one point one superstar of the game had every spare inch covered about their person – shoulder x2, chest x2, collar x2, visor x2 and middle of upper back x1. Nine different sponsors, all paying a good chunk of money for their moment in the sun or ideally beamed around the world which, given the player’s profile, was most weeks.
On the flip side, like our friends above, that most likely means there are nine different sets of people who would like some of your time, maybe a day when you’re back in the country which might well mean joining the annual bun fight at Wentworth where you can’t move for anyone and everyone or the day after The Open as that’s your only other available slot.
At a lower level, but still on the European Tour, one fairly notable player recently signed a deal that gave him £25,000 for an attachment and some lettering which added up to three days with the sponsor and four ‘meet and greets’ at tournaments. If he dropped down to the Challenge Tour the figure would drop to £20,000.
The Challenge Tour bit would probably be seen as something of a rarity and a very nice add on for the player given that it’s generally only the main tour that brings in the money.
Another player, who was pretty much unheard of, made the jump up a few years ago and went into his European Tour rookie season with £70,000 tucked away to help with all the usual and generally unavoidable costs – 50 grand for a 10-club deal which basically means playing the irons but he would also now carrying the same headcovers, a logoed bag and headwear which left things flexible for some sort of clothing deal.
The rest of it was made up by 10k for a ball, glove and shoe deal and the same amount for his woods.
Play the Challenge Tour and things very quickly fall away and you’re then reliant on your own skills to raise a few quid, a proactive management company or some friendly members, friends and family.
Like most things in life each to their own but, in the modern world where players are prone to shoehorn their sponsors into every conversation or develop a left-ear itch during interviews to keep the watchmakers happy, it’s refreshing to see some players keeping it ever-so-slightly real.
The great irony of course being that they get more exposure for being so different.