The Rise Of The Equipment Free Agent

golf equipment free agent
Most people would argue (justifiably) that the biggest golfing story of 2018 has been the sensational, Lazarus-like resurgence of Tiger Woods.

Let us not forget, the great man had slumped to a world ranking of 656 this time last year.

Today, he sits comfortably inside the top 15, with the pinnacle of his comeback undoubtedly coming at East Lake where he bagged the Tour Championship.

The thing is, we’re golf equipment nerds, so, for us, there were a few other things to get us off our chairs over the past 12 months.

But undoubtedly, the most intriguing development of all has been the increase in the number of high-profile players opting to be equipment free agents.

You may point to the headline-grabbing contracts signed by the likes of Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods recently, along with the other big cheeses TaylorMade recruited, and think that we’ve lost it.

But we’d respond by pointing you in the direction of Messrs Koepka, Molinari, Fleetwood, Reed, Dufner, Na and many others – all of whom have had successful years, and all of whom are free to fill their golf bag as they please.

Why has this trend emerged – nay, exploded – you ask?

Well, who are we to say… But PGA Tour veteran Ryan Palmer is pretty well placed to provide clarity, and in a recent interview with Golf WRX’s ‘Gear Dive’ podcast, he did just that.

“Well the problem today is, you’re having to sign the full bag,” the Texan explained. “With TaylorMade, you’re having to sign the full staff, the ball. Titleist, full clubs, the ball. Callaway will get you in a driver deal. TaylorMade doesn’t have driver deals out there. Ping is obviously full staff, full clubs. So it’s just, guys are not wanting to sign away every club in their bag. I mean, for me, I’ve got an Odyssey putter, Vokey wedges, Srixon irons, TaylorMade woods.”

Formerly on staff with TaylorMade, Palmer decided to go his own way a few years back. He has a number of sponsors, but none of them are equipment manufacturers, and, for him, the freedom to pick and choose his weapons cuts a lot more mustard than the steady flow of money he used to receive as a TaylorMade player.

“You know, honestly, some of the contracts aren’t worth what the money we’re playing for,” Palmer said.

“That’s the way I’ve always looked at it, the last few years, and I’d rather take the clubs I’m comfortable with and have confidence in, than going out there with something I’m not used to – just to get a couple hundred thousand more dollars.

“I think these young guys today, come out here, and then they leave the [Web.com Tour], and then automatically, ‘Who can I sign with, where can I sign?’ They’re getting bad advice from the people giving them advice, you know? There are people out there trying to make a buck off them. They think, ‘Here, sign this deal with this company because somebody on the outside is getting an extra kickback.’”

For the average reader, the prospect of an easy “couple hundred thousand more dollars” would be impossible to turn down. Madness, in fact.

But such are the purses on the PGA Tour today that this is, in fact, an insignificant volume of money to risk jeopardising the confidence of top players; and even journeymen. Palmer, for example, has racked up $24 million in his 385 PGA Tour events, and, as he points out, prize money is only going up. As such, he expects many more people to follow the path of free agents like him.

“Guys don’t realize, you sign a $400,000 contract with whoever, go finish top 10 twice, and you’ve made it, you’ve made that money,” he said. “So that’s my approach. Mike Chisholm, my manager, close personal friend of mine first, but, we talk about it all the time. And, to me, and he knows, there’s more money to be won on the golf course than there is off the golf course when it comes to equipment.”

Interestingly, many people baulked when McIlroy signed his $100m deal with TaylorMade last year. But that contract is over the course of a full decade, and entails every piece of major equipment: clubs, balls and bag. All for $10m per year.

Still seems a lot?

Sure, but it’s actually less than half of what he earned in 2018 alone (incl endorsements). And that is a year in which his form has been mixed, at best (did the two go hand in hand?). So it does recalibrate the scales somewhat, and make you wonder if signing on the dotted line really was such a no-brainer for the Northern Irishman.

Especially off the back of a year in which we have seen all four major trophies go to players without an equipment contract.

So what do we take from this?

Our opinion is that 2018 will go down as a watershed year, and we expect the trail blazed by Palmer, Koepka, Fleetwood, Molinari et al to become a well-travelled one.

It’s an almighty task for equipment sponsors to keep up with the swelling prize money on the PGA Tour, and the fact that TaylorMade have had to cut loose the likes of Sergio Garcia and (in all likelihood) Justin Rose to balance the books suggests it isn’t going to be easy.

A huge challenge for these big brands indeed. And a gripping mystery thriller for us over here at Golf Assessor HQ.

Mike fell in love with the game from a very early age – a passion that hasn’t diminished ever since. He earned provincial colors throughout his junior years, but by the time he reached Varsity, the realization set in (thanks largely to some cold ales) that it was time to favor the pen rather than his clubs. He now writes for GA along with a few other sources.

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