Burning Questions: Phil Mickelson, equipment endorsement deals, and more

Wednesday January 18th, 2012
Phil Mickelson
Al Tielemans/SI

Is Phil Mickelson still the King of the West Coast Swing?
Phil Mickelson turned pro in 1992, but even before he was paid to play, the PGA Tour's West Coast Swing seemed to suit him. You might remember that in 1991, as a 20-year-old junior at Arizona State, Mickelson won the Northern Telecom Open to become the first amateur to win a PGA Tour event since Scott Verplank at the 1985 Western Open.

Since then, Mickelson has tallied 38 more Tour wins (including four majors), won more than $63 million in prize money and been selected for induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in May.

A San Diego native, Mickelson has earned several of those wins on the West Coast Swing, but as the chart below shows, he's become very inconsistent in recent years.

  2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003
Kapalua - - - - - - - - -
Sony - - - - - -- - - -
Humana - - - - T45 T5 - 1 T6
Torrey Pines 2 19 T42 T6 T51 T8 T56 T4 T4
Phoenix T29 T24 MC 2 MC T7 1 T7 T9
Pebble T9 T8 T55 MC 1 T38 1 3 64
Riviera T35 T45 1 1 2 - - - -
Accenture T17 - T9 17 T17 T9 T9 T5 T9

Phil has qualified for the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions every year since 2004, but he has skipped that event and the Sony Open each year. He also decided not to play in the last four Bob Hope Classics but is scheduled to return to Palm Springs this week.

Mickelson's inconsistent results on the West Coast (and elsewhere) can be attributed to his putting. The chart below shows how  Mickelson has faired on the greens over the past two years in each of the events he played in 2010 and 2011. To be fair, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am is played on three courses, but his putting at that event is consistent with the others in the chart, so I included it.

  '11 Putts/Rd '11 Putting Avg. '10 Putts/Rd. '10 Putting Avg.
Phoenix 28.75 (51st) 1.731 (52nd) 29.31 (92nd) 1.788 (117th)
Riviera 29.06 (75th) 1.759 (72nd) 29.64 (108th) 1.811 (130th)
Torrey Pines 28.50 (31st) 1.673 (12) 29.25 (63rd) 1.78 (92nd)
Pebble Beach 29.58 (105th) 1.818 (143rd) 29.25 (91st) 1.756 (86th)

The only event where Mickelson putted well was the 2011 Farmer's Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, and wouldn't you know it, Phil's best chance to win came last year at Torrey Pines when he finished one shot behind Bubba Watson.
 
Although he earned a top-10 finish at Pebble Beach last season, his eight-under-par score was a distant seven shots behind the winner (D.A. Points). In 2010 he tied for eighth but was six shots behind Dustin Johnson.

While he isn't going to come out and say it, at this point in Mickelson's career the West Coast Swing is simply a long warm-up before the Masters. Sure, he'd love to win, but I wonder if he's as concerned with winning as getting his game into form after his post-Presidents Cup layoff. If you're a Phil Fanatic and want to see him slip into his fourth green jacket, don't concern yourself with West Coast Swing Ws—just hope Mickelson can regain his putting touch by April.
 
Jason Gore was given a sponsor's exemption to the Northern Trust Open after seeking the spot on Twitter. Is it appropriate for players to use social media to try to gain entry into tournaments?
A sponsor's exemption should be given to young, up-and-coming players to give them an opportunity to get their careers going and get a taste of competition. They should also go to golfers who can help sell tickets and create positive exposure for the event.

However, as Sports Illustrated's Gary Van Sickle recently reported, sponsors' exemptions often go to players who have been around a long time and have built up plenty of good will. More often than not, these players don't make an impact at the turnstiles or on the leaderboard.
 
I'm sure the tournament committee at the Northern Trust Open knew Jason Gore would love a sponsor's exemption, but informing his 9,000+ followers was a great move. Here are three reasons why giving Gore a sponsor's exemption after his Twitter appeal was a no-brainer:

1. He's a local guy: Gore was a member of Pepperdine's golf team that won the 1997 NCAA championship. He won the 2004 California State Open and is still a resident of the town where he was born, Valencia. He's played in the Northern Trust Open six times, made the cut three times and finished as high as a tie for 14th. This is his hometown event, and even before he was given the sponsor's exemption, he was sending messages like this: 


When was the last time you heard John Daly—who made three cuts after receiving seven sponsors' exemptions last season—send a message like that?

2. He's not looking for a free lunch: Crash Davis, Kevin Costner's character in "Bull Durham," held the dubious record for the most home runs hit … in the minor leagues. Unfortunately for Gore, he's got a similar distinction—he's won more titles on the Nationwide Tour (7) than anyone else.
 
Gore went back to Q-School in December for the seventh time and missed getting his card by two shots, finishing tied for 30th in the 160-man field. Obviously he's not looking to live off handouts; he's willing to work to earn his spot.

3. He immediately said 'thank you': When he read this news ...


... Gore seemed genuinely grateful:


So when you add it all up, you've got a local guy who just missed earning his way back on the PGA Tour, who’s helping the event make headlines already, and who is genuinely thankful for the chance to compete. Sounds like an easy pick to make.
 
I don't see anything wrong with Gore using a social network like Twitter or Facebook to help him get into a tournament. If I were a tournament director, I'd be thrilled if guys created some buzz for me and let thousands of golf fans know just how badly they wanted to play my event.

Several PGA Tour players have recently parted ways with their old equipment companies and signed new sponsorship deals. How do these agreements work?
Specific details of endorsements deals are almost never leaked, but many aspects of the deals are fairly standard.
 
If a player switches from one company to another, it takes time for fans to start associating him with the new company, so the standard equipment endorsement deal is for three years. It is very hard to accurately predict what a player's value will be in the future—especially younger players who haven't won yet—so longer-term deals are rare. However, stars and players who are fixtures atop the world rankings can command longer-term endorsement deals.
 
Like the contracts signed by NFL and NBA players, most equipment deals in golf pay the player a set amount per year and include incentive clauses that can add money to the base number. Common incentives include winning a major championship, winning a PGA Tour event, qualifying for the Tour Championship and getting into the top 50, 20 or 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings. Since meeting any of those incentives increases the exposure of the brand, they're worth it to everybody involved.
 
In addition, players may be incentivized to lead the PGA Tour in a statistic like driving distance, putting or greens in regulation because winning one of those titles makes the equipment company's products look good. 

Typically, equipment endorsement deals demand the player use at least 11 or 12 of the manufacturer's clubs, and the driver and putter must be among them. If a player really wants to keep a trusty old fairway wood or hybrid in his bag, companies are usually okay with it, but the player will be expected to put a headcover from his new company over the old club. Players will typically make more money if they use 13 or 14 clubs.
 
Deals for using a company's golf ball are sometimes included in club deals, but it's not unusual for players to have a separate deal for their ball.
 
A player's bag and hat are highly visible, so it's not unusual for equipment companies to want their logo on them, too, but lots of players, especially the stars, seek separate deals for them. In fact, some players will have one company's name on the front of their hat and different companies on the sides.

Which under-30 American—Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson or Gary Woodland—has the best chance to win a major in 2012?
If you predicted 25-year-old Keegan Bradley was going to win the 2011 PGA Championship last year at the Atlanta Athletic Club, you're either related to him or lying. As a rookie last year, Bradley won the HP Byron Nelson Championship in May, but his major breakthrough came out of the blue.
 
Unlike Bradley, a lot of people expect big things from Johnson, Simpson and Woodland, including majors. But as the Tour hits the mainland, I think Simpson is the most likely to get one this year.

Webb Simpson
Fred Vuich/SI
Webb Simpson
 
It might be tempting to think Simpson's 2011 season was a fluke, but he looked great the Presidents Cup and tied for third at Kapalua. Simpson ranked first in the Tour's All-Around ranking last year and is especially good with his irons, so you can't attribute his success to a hot streak.
 
Aside from inexperience on the biggest stages, Simpson just doesn't seem to have any weaknesses. He hasn't felt the crucible of Sunday afternoon pressure at a major, but his temperament and disposition seem built to handle it well.
 
Why not Johnson? Two reasons:

1. A balky putter: As amazing as he is with the driver, over four rounds Johnson's putting is almost two strokes worse than the PGA Tour average. (Johnson ranked 171st in Strokes Gained-Putting in 2011 with -.497.) The fact that Johnson has put himself in position to win three majors shows you how good the rest of his game is, and what he could accomplish if he learns to putt better.

2. Costly course management: You could excuse Johnson's poor decisions on the front-nine at Pebble Beach that turned a three-shot lead into an 82 and a tie for eighth at the 2010 U.S. Open, just two days before his 26th birthday. You could also choose to look past the bunker gaffe that cost him a spot in a playoff at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits two months later. You could choose to forget that he blew an iron out-of-bounds on the 14th hole and made double-bogey when chasing Darren Clarke at Royal St. George's. I can't.

Gary Woodland is another player with power to spare who needs to improve his putting if he wants to win a major. His average drive rockets 310 yards, but in 2011 he three-putted 65 times. That's 20 more than Keegan Bradley in about the same number of holes.
 
As SI’s Alan Shipnuck reported, Woodland is now working with Butch Harmon after his longtime swing guru Randy Smith said the two should part ways. (Woodland recently left Hambric Sports Management, and dropped Smith's son, Blake, as his agent.) Mark Steinberg, Tiger Woods's agent, now represents him.
 
Shipnuck reported that the breakup genuinely shook Woodland, who appeared lost at Kapalua. I hope Gary finds his way quickly because he's a lot of fun to watch, but shaky putting and new swing thoughts don't usually lead to major victories.

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