When the legacy of Tiger Woods is determined, his most important impact might well be the better athletes he attracted to golf. Woods did that in two ways:
He made the game cool, and he made it possible to get rich—really rich—by playing golf.
August will be the 20th anniversary of Woods' pro debut, and in those two decades talented and compellingly athletic young people have chosen golf over other sports. The results can be seen on leader boards every week.
The Tiger Babies are here, and they are taking over.
For the first time in the 13 years of the Golf Digest 50 all-encompassing money list, Woods is not No. 1. That honor goes to Jordan Spieth, who is 22 years old and was 3 when Tiger won his first professional major championship, the 1997 Masters.
Spieth earned more than $53 million on and off the course (see chart) to lead the GD50. At more than $48.5 million, Woods fell to No. 3, behind 45-year-old Phil Mickelson and ahead of Rory McIlroy, 26. Arnold Palmer, golf's most enduring cash machine at 86, is No. 5.
Don't feel sorry for Tiger: During his career, he has earned more than $1.4 billion—with a B.
The change at the top of the GD50 reflects new talent and new ways of marketing that talent. Instead of Woods as the clear No. 1 and Mickelson the perpetual 1-A, a Big Four has emerged, connecting with their fans by taking to social media and digital platforms in addition to traditional advertising and media outlets. The arrival of the Big Four of Spieth, McIlroy, Jason Day (No. 7 at age 28) and Rickie Fowler (No. 8 at 27) could not be more fortuitous.
"With Tiger and Phil deep into the back nine, this young group came along at just the right time," says John Mascatello of Wasserman Media Group, which represents Day and Fowler.
"You can never rule out anything with Tiger because he is just an incredible athlete," Mascatello says, "but because you no longer have to rest on any one person's shoulder, I think the game is well positioned."
Because of Woods, who also brought a focus on fitness, pro golfers are bigger, younger, stronger, better, more confident and richer than ever before.
In addition to the Big Four, this year's GD50 includes No. 22 Hideki Matsuyama, No. 34 Ryo Ishikawa, No. 36 Patrick Reed, No. 46 Danny Lee, No. 47 Lydia Ko, No. 48 Sangmoon Bae and No. 50 Paula Creamer. All are in their 20s—except Ko, who is just 18. Poised to possibly move into the GD50 next year are players like Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger, both 22; Inbee Park, 27; and Robert Streb, 28.
"There is no question professional golf is as healthy as it's been in my 25 years in the game, both from an entertainment point of view and a commercial point of view," says Clarke Jones, managing director of the Americas for IMG, which has Ko, Matsuyama and Creamer among its clients, along with Palmer.
Think of it: Day was 9 when Woods won that 1997 Masters, McIlroy was 7 and Ko was born 11 days after Tiger slipped on his first of four green jackets.
The depth of talent in men's golf was demonstrated last summer when McIlroy missed time with an ankle injury.
"When Rory got hurt, instead of the PGA Championship and the [FedEx Cup] Playoffs being uninteresting, Jason won two of the playoff events [plus the PGA], Rickie one and Spieth the other," Mascatello says. "The No. 1 player couldn't play for six weeks, and there was more attention to the game than ever. It's like having depth on your roster in winning a Super Bowl."
That was not always the case when Woods was at the top and fan interest tended to wane when he was injured or playing poorly. For decades, golf positioned itself as a sport whose value was defined not by the size of its audience but by the quality of those fans—a demographic with buying power. In the heady early days of Tiger-generated TV ratings, golf got taken out of its game plan.
"Tiger got golf off message, but we all got swept up in it," says one business insider, speaking not for attribution because he does business with the PGA Tour. "They got very fortunate that Jordan came along with his squeaky-clean image. Rickie gets it in terms of the media, the public and sponsors. Jason got his act together. But I still think Rory will be the guy."
Despite not winning a major in 2015, McIlroy won twice on the PGA Tour, including the WGC-Cadillac Match Play, and three times on the European Tour, including the DP World Tour Championship.
Spieth had five PGA Tour wins, including the Masters and the U.S. Open; Day had the PGA Championship, The Barclays and the BMW Championship among his five tour wins; Fowler earned titles at the Players and the Deutsche Bank; and Zach Johnson, who is No. 15 on the GD50, won the British Open for his second major and 12th career victory.
"In terms of entertainment and growing the game, we have some really good kids: Rickie, Rory, Jordan and Jason," says the business insider. "The consumer wants good guys. That's who these kids are."
Agents even speak glowingly of clients who are not their own, realizing their greatness will lift the entire golf market the way Woods helped make money for everyone associated with the game. Spieth is represented by Lagardère Unlimited, Johnson is at Wasserman with Day and Fowler, and McIlroy is the sole client at Rory McIlroy Inc.
Before Tiger, the leading money-winner on the PGA Tour made barely more than the average Major League Baseball player. Woods changed all that. He helped quintuple PGA Tour purses and brought in new sponsors like financial institutions, electronics, pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals.
"The amount of money that companies looked to spend in the sport increased, the number of nonendemic industries grew with Tiger playing professionally, the endemics took a whole different view of the sport, Nike actually got into the golf business, the game became more global," says Mark Steinberg of Excel Sports Management, which represents Berger and Thomas in addition to Woods and GD50-ranked Justin Rose and Matt Kuchar.
In 1995, the year before Woods turned pro, Greg Norman led the PGA Tour money list with $1.6 million. This year, Spieth earned more than $23 million on the golf course, including official and unofficial money and his $10 million FedEx Cup bonus, an addition to the tour during the Woods era.
Spieth also earned $30 million off the course. And there is no arena of sports marketing not open to golfers.
"Look at Patrick Rodgers," Mascatello says. "He has a relationship with the Indianapolis Colts. He's from Indiana, is a Colts guy; it was a natural progression. Rickie Fowler is with Farmers Insurance and Quicken Loans, but also Red Bull, which hadn't been in the golf game.
It used to be branding and client entertainment. Now with social media you can have a corporate relationship without wearing a logo or showing up at a golf outing. Like Rickie and Mercedes are doing some digital things together, but with no logo on him."
The new generation is connecting with sponsors and consumers in the same way it connects with fans and friends—on smartphones. "It's their way of life," Steinberg says. "Companies now ask, 'What is your following; will you be willing to tweet X amount of times for our brand?' etc. Those were not the questions being asked in the '90s. Times have changed, and the next generation evolved with that change."
SPIETH'S BIG DEAL
Sitting at the top of that marketing and performance pyramid is Spieth, who signed a 10-year contract extension with Under Armour even before he won two majors in 2015. "Both parties went into this knowing he would win major championships, and we built that into this unprecedented relationship," says Jay Danzi, who represents Spieth for Lagardère. "Jordan's bought into a brand strategy from the beginning, and people are getting to see what an amazing person he is."
Adds David M. Carter, founder of The Sports Business Group: "[Spieth's] approachability and likability will go a long way with a wide range of consumers and fans who have been consistently disappointed by other superstars."
In November, when Spieth traveled to the Australian Open, Under Armour was all over it, setting up a junior clinic there under the slogan "Rule Yourself" and promoting it on Instagram, Twitter and its website.
It's a new world of marketing in pro golf and a new galaxy of stars, with compelling rivalries that might extend beyond the Big Four. And that new reality seems to have golf in a very good place.