Palmer, Nicklaus, Norman and Player have proved that excellence on the course can reap vast riches long after you hang up your clubs
Published 10/01/2011 | 05:00
IT truly was a golden handshake; the moment in which the world's elite professional sportsmen were transformed from modestly-paid pursuers of excellence into the nouveau riche of the television age.
When Arnie Palmer, then the undisputed king of the fairways, shook hands on a deal in 1960 to let Cleveland lawyer Mark McCormack manage his business affairs, the era of the multi-millionaire golfer was born.
McCormack would go on to recruit Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for his fledgling International Management Group (IMG), creating an environment which in the 21st century would produce the first man to gross a $1bn from sport, Tiger Woods.
Much has been made recently of a reputed $47m drop in Tiger's income in 2010, yet it's a measure of his astonishing earning potential that even as he tried to claw his way back into favour after the biggest sex scandal in sports history, Woods still managed to earn $74.2m.
These figures have been produced by 'Golf Digest' in their authoritative annual ranking of the top-50 earners on the world's professional fairways. By every estimate, from 'Forbes' magazine to 'Sports Illustrated', Tiger's annual salary remains by far the biggest in all sports.
McCormack passed away in 2003, but he was aged just 29 in 1960, when he wooed Palmer, America's most popular golfer, with a business formula as potent as anything dreamed up by the young Einstein.
As TV reached out to a new global audience, McCormack believed that in sports marketing, E (earning power) equals MC (mastery and charisma) squared, yielding massive dividends which, in the case of Nicklaus, Palmer and Player, are still measured in megabucks 40 years later.
The McCormack principle applies to all codes, but the legends of golf enjoy a financial half-life on a par with plutonium, as evidenced by the high proportion of elder statesmen listed among the biggest earners in their sport today.
Remarkably, four of the leading eight in Golf Digest's top 50 have not competed or won at the highest level this century -- Palmer ($36m) was third only to Woods and Phil Mickelson in the list of the sport's biggest earners last year, with Greg Norman ($30m) fourth, Nicklaus ($25m) fifth and Player ($15m) eighth.
Indeed, Palmer's estimated income in 2010 would have placed him just ahead of baseball's current top earner, Alex 'A-Rod' Rodriguez -- who comes in at No 12 in the most recent 'Forbes' ranking of world sport's best-paid athletes -- had the 81-year-old legend been considered eligible.
Key to the continuing financial success of Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and subsequent golfing icons like Greg Norman was McCormack's philosophy that any contracts they signed would be based on their public image and not their performance in the arena.
"A brilliant part of Mark's strategy was never to tie my endorsement of a product to how I was fairing on the golf course," Palmer explains. "His aim was never to pitch me as a winner because there always comes a day when a winner no longer wins; when his appeal, accordingly, dramatically dips."
Instead, human traits were the focus, like success, endurance, reliability and integrity, which inevitably makes one wonder about the long-term damage Tiger's infamous infidelities have done to his earning potential.
Though Palmer quit the Champions Tour and retired from competitive golf in 2006, his company, Arnold Palmer Enterprises, continues to do business with a vast array of commercial partners around the globe, while the man himself endorses a wide range of prestige products.
Palmer made good money on the course (banking just under $2000 for his first victory at the 1955 Canadian Open and, in 1967, becoming the first golfer to surpass $1m in career prize money) in a stellar career in which seven Major championships featured among Palmer's 62 wins on the PGA Tour and 94 in all around the world.
Yet it would be a drop in the ocean alongside Palmer's vast income from course design and development and other golf-related businesses, plus fields as diverse as restaurant ownership, car sales, publishing and media. For example, he and Alabama businessman Joseph E Gibbs raised $80m in financing to launch 'The Golf Channel' in 1995.
Nicklaus, who separated from IMG in the early '70s to set up his own management agency Golden Bear Inc, and Player, whose empire is now run by son Marc under the Black Knight brand, also ventured into a wide array of business.
Indeed, Golden Bear had such a vast number of subsidiaries by the mid-80s, Nicklaus confessed: "I didn't know what any of them did and neither did anyone else."
"We are an accountancy nightmare," admitted Nicklaus on that occasion as he addressed debts of $174m built up by the companies, while Golden Bear would become a subject of a Stock Exchange Commission inquiry after another hiccup in 1998. However, all has gone swimmingly since the business reverted to private ownership under the Nicklaus Companies mantle in 2000.
Like true love, the course of business rarely runs smooth so Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, inevitably, all have had headaches. Yet the powerful driving force behind their success beyond golf and that of 'Great White Shark' Norman has been the reputation they built in the competitive arena.
This is especially significant in the field of golf course development and design, which has given each of them the opportunity to exploit a massive boom in their sport in recent decades, especially since Tiger exploded onto the world stage in the mid-90s.
While Nicklaus racked up a remarkable 115 tournament victories as a player, including a record 18 Majors, this figure is dwarfed by the number of golf courses he has designed -- a whopping 350 in 30 countries, including Mount Juliet in Ireland.
Thirty years ago, Nicklaus charged $150,000 to design a course in the US and $250,000 in foreign countries where English was spoken, rising to an average fee of around $2.5m today.
Palmer, meanwhile, has put his name to 254 courses in 23 countries, also including Ireland, where he created two at The K Club and another for Tralee Golf Club.
Player, who won 166 tournaments worldwide as a golfer, has completed 300 design projects and Greg Norman has built 74 (including Doonbeg) since starting up his course design company in 1987. That's just under 1,000 between the four of them -- not bad business if you can get it.
While golf course development has slowed in these islands and the United States, there's no shortage of new projects further afield -- especially in China -- to keep the four idols busy in the years ahead.
The competition to build a course in Brazil for golf's return to the Olympic arena in 2016 is one prestige assignment which certainly has stirred their competitive juices and those of many other vaunted designers.
Nicklaus has teamed up with Annika Sorenstam (No 39 in the 'Golf Digest' top 50, despite quitting Tour golf in 2008) to make an attractive joint-bid for the honour, while Norman forged an alliance with another retired former world No 1, Lorena Ochoa of Mexico.
Given their role as ambassadors for the International Golf Federation, which led the campaign for golf's re-admission to the Olympic family, it'd be surprising if Nicklaus and Sorenstam don't get the nod.
Yet as Nicklaus, Sorenstam, Norman, Palmer, Player and other over-50s like Nick Faldo and Tom Watson continue to ride high among golf's top 50 earners, it's clear that a career in golf, unlike many other professional sports, is for life.