Clockwise from top left: No. 21 Annika Sorenstam, No. 35 Rory McIlroy, No. 38 Y.E. Yang, No. 41 Paula Creamer, No. 42 Ryo Ishikawa and No. 47 John Daly.
The seventh Golf Digest 50 all-encompassing money list shows little change from the economic meltdown of 2009, but it does provide hints of upheaval in the coming year. Companies are allocating their money more at the top, according to Golf Digest interviews with agents who handle dozens of players, though the impact of the Tiger Woods scandal on his off-course earnings remains a huge question. Woods' 2009 on- and off-course earnings pushed his total since 1996 to $1,008,693,531, making him golf's first $1 billion man. Agents highlighted the following trends:
Blue-chip players increased in demand as companies on shrinking budgets looked for the best value. Fred Couples, for example, has iconic value. Companies don't have to explain who he is. Even the best players are getting fewer offers, but they are still getting more than they can accept.
Performance matters even more in a down economy. Just being young and talented is not enough to lure lucrative deals. Corporations are no longer willing to gamble on potential. Rory McIlroy, 20, and Ryo Ishikawa, 18, debut on this year's GD 50 because they didn't just promise, they produced. Contracts have smaller guarantees and more performance-based incentives, agents said.
Agents must convince players to give up more of their most precious commodity: time. Traditionally, each endorsement deal required two or three days a year. Now companies want four or more.
For just about anyone who was not a top-tier player, it was a bad year for a contract to expire. According to one agent, a major-championship winner whose equipment endorsement was up in 2009 "will be lucky to get 60 percent of what he was getting."
As is true just about everywhere, it's a buyers market in golf. "For savvy sponsors," says J.S. Kang of Sterling Sports Management, "there's never been a better buying opportunity."