Hughes Norton saw it coming before anyone. The bonanza awaiting whomever signed the No. 1 amateur golfer, a kid who was well spoken and multiethnic and dominant like Arnold and Jack combined—to represent that player, to pull in 20 percent of that impending tsunami of revenue, well, it would be like getting the keys to the vault.
And so around the time that Tiger Woods started adolescence, the former IMG agent Norton hired Earl Woods, Tiger's father, to be the super-agency's "junior talent scout." It stands as the masterstroke of recruiting, a move that even rival agents recall with grudging respect. "It turns out that was money well spent," says Andrew Witlieb, Jim Furyk's longtime agent, with a laugh. "I admire the ingenuity."
Norton, who chose not to comment for this story, was no dummy. If ever there was a sure thing, Woods was it, and with Earl already an IMG employee, Tiger's choice of representation was a fait accompli.
Still, one agent remained unmoved: former college football recruiter Tommy Limbaugh, who after 21 years on the gridiron sidelines at schools like Texas Tech and Alabama had been hired by Orlando's Leader Enterprises to recruit top golfers. "I think it was just IMG and myself," Limbaugh said recently from his offices at Orlando's 4U Management, which represents golfers Jason Allred, Ben Crane and Lee Janzen. "I think I was the only one who didn't have a clear picture of what was going on."
Indeed, in 1996, as Limbaugh watched Woods win his third straight U.S. Amateur, at Pumpkin Ridge in Portland, Ore., the agent still thought he was in the running to land the golfer. Limbaugh had met Earl Woods at the Sullivan Awards in Orlando, and they'd chatted on the phone and scheduled a breakfast meeting for the Monday after the Amateur's 36-hole final. And so the agent soldiered on, a solitary figure of dogged hopefulness, until reality bit hard.
"I looked up and saw some of the other people on that course"—Nike's Phil Knight, Norton—"and I thought, I don't feel too good about my chances," Limbaugh says, laughing. "It was my optimistic self. I was a rookie. Looking back, I don't think we ever had a chance." Alas there was no breakfast meeting, but as Limbaugh likes to say, it's okay to miss on a great player. What's not okay is to sign a guy with whom you can't win championships.
With IMG, Woods would ink record deals with Nike and others, launching a robust portfolio. Mark Steinberg replaced Norton at Team Tiger in 1998, but Woods never broke stride. He became a one-man, multimedia multinational, whose face (until a certain sex scandal deflated his brand) would adorn everything from airport walkways to videogame consoles to sports drinks. Norton's big gamble paid off, and it changed everything.
Agents were already a cunning, assertive bunch. In the early '90s, Witlieb, Furyk's agent, looked up Jim's dad Mike at home in Manheim, Pa., and cold-called him to open a dialogue. But in the Woods era, agents not only multiplied, they became even craftier. Consider the first meeting of Bud Martin, the president of SFX Golf, and a teen-aged Jason Day five years ago. The two were paired together in a pro-am at the Australian PGA Championship. "It was luck, I guess," Martin says.
"Let's put it this way," he adds. "In our world we make our own luck. The tournament director is a friend of mine."
It's easy to laugh, and hard to find fault with the sharper, more plentiful elbows of the agents. But it's also hard to ignore the steady stream of prodigies who haven't panned out, begging the question of unintended consequences: Are talent scouts short-circuiting the talent?
That's not a theory, it's a full-blown fact," says Robert Gutierrez of Marketing and Management in Coral Gables, Fla. He worked with Sergio Garcia's management company from 1998 to 2001, and now counts New Zealander Tim Wilkinson as his best-known client. Gutierrez believes the focus on money has not only distracted promising rookies, it's in some cases led their agents to recommend equipment changes that make no sense other than financially. "You can tell a bad manager if the first thing out of his mouth is how much money he's going to make the kid," Gutierrez says, "as opposed to asking them about goals and saying, 'Here's how we're going to meet them.' "
Other agents agree, arguing that the hubbub of recruiting especially diminishes young players. "It's ridiculous, five or six agents following a guy around and trying to get in good with the parents," says Rocky Hambric, whose eponymous agency successfully recruited Charles Howell III and Anthony Kim (both players strayed to other agencies, prompting lawsuits). "That environment is not good for player development. Since Tiger turned pro, the guys who were the best juniors haven't been the best pros. They're so full of themselves thinking, 'All these people are beating down the door trying to talk to me!'
"They don't put in the work," Hambric adds.
A brief rundown of one-time future stars would seem to support the idea that something is amiss. Hank Kuehne won the '98 Amateur and briefly played on the PGA Tour before getting injured and divorced and falling off the circuit. David Gossett won the '99 Amateur final 9 & 8, but his once-promising career has stalled. Jeff Quinney, Bubba Dickerson and Ricky Barnes followed in that order at the Amateur, but all three have been slow to mature, to put it kindly.
Then there was Ty Tryon, just 17 when he got through all three stages of Q school in 2001, the youngest ever to survive that gauntlet and reach the Tour. Already an IMG client, Tryon signed a multimillion-dollar Callaway deal and lasted… one year.
All of which highlights the agent's catch-22: The money is such that a blown opportunity can cost millions—Woods, Mickelson and Furyk have stuck with the same agencies or agents for their entire careers—but the frenzied search for the next TW may be ensuring there won't be one. Instead of breeding superstars, the process may be breeding entitlement—players dumping their agent at the first sign of adversity, only to begin the courtship process again—and delusion born of greed. That means not only chasing the fast appearance fee and fat club contract, but being professionals in the first place.
Mike Holder, formerly Oklahoma State men's golf coach and now the university's athletic director, feels some golfers are simply too raw to turn pro but do it anyway. "The problem I have is the dialogue between agents and players has led some players to leave school before they're ready," Holder says. "It's not like the money is going to go anywhere or there's a risk of injury or the PGA Tour is going to cease to exist. What's the hurry?"
Perhaps it's no coincidence that Ryan Moore, who operated through much of 2009 sans sponsors or even an agent in an effort to reconnect to the game, bagged his first Tour win since his much-ballyhooed arrival in 2005.
Can agents help it if Norton and Woods turned the job on its head along with everything else? Hambric remembers signing Larry Mize after he won the 1983 Danny Thomas Memphis Classic, in Mize's second season and 53rd start on Tour. "In the early to mid-80s, I never recruited a player until he won on the PGA Tour," Hambric says, "and I wasn't the only one who did it that way."
It made sense for agents to wait, given golf's fickle nature. But then came the rise of the junior academies—the David Leadbetter Academy is owned by IMG, giving the agency a leg up on recruiting kids who go there—and developmental circuits like the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA), and a few incandescent super-players.
Hambric realized he could no longer afford to wait when Phil Mickelson was set to turn pro in 1992. The left-hander had won not only the U.S. Amateur but also a PGA Tour event. Hambric mobilized. He played hoops with Mickelson's little brother Tim and had dinner with the family. And in a move that might have impressed even IMG's Norton, he booked himself on Mickelson and Arizona State coach Steve Loy's flight from the '92 NCAAs in Albuquerque, N.M., back to Phoenix.
"Jack Nicklaus had formed a management agency and there were rumors that he was going to be flying in at the last minute," Hambric says. "And Mark McCormick was said to be flying in." Sensing urgency, Hambric secured a meeting with Phil in Mickelson's apartment the next day, and signed the ASU star. Hambric hired Loy to help manage him. (Hambric denies any quid pro quo.)
David Duval turned pro the next year, and Justin Leonard the year after that. (Hambric still manages Leonard.) All three players hit it big, and identifying talent seemed easy. And then, after Woods in '96, it didn't.
"Tryon could still make it," says Ken Kennerly, Robert Allenby's agent and the Honda Classic tournament director. "He might be a late-bloomer." Like Ben Curtis. Few saw him coming until he won the 2003 British Open, by which time he was already under contract with IMG. Part of recruiting means covering your bets. That's one reason why every pro is said to be worth at least $250,000 the moment he secures his Tour card.
"It's not a big land-grab," says Kevin Lynch, IMG's director of recruiting and a former college golf coach. "It's a strategic approach, and we take a lot of things into account. Simply, can this person play in and contend in majors? If yes, then the next question is, is this person marketable?" In evaluating the up-and-comers of 2010, the dealmakers decided the top prospects are Rickie Fowler (Oklahoma State)—who earned his Tour card at Q School in December—and Jamie Lovemark (USC). The two signed with SFX and IMG, respectively, after a summer of intrigue.
It all looked very familiar to Moore. "Oh, yeah," he says, when asked if he and his dad received overtures. "There was interest at the U.S. Amateur [in 2004, which Moore won], but there was way more at the NCAAs the next year. There were a lot of agents—maybe a dozen or more." (Moore signed with Gaylord Sports but has since left the agency.)
Jason Day got the same treatment. Agents followed him in his native Australia, and, when he won the Callaway Junior World in San Diego, in the States. He was wooed by college coaches, too. "It was a really hard decision to make," says Day, who let his swing instructor handle the college coaches—Day was 18 when he turned pro in 2006—before turning himself to the difficult choice of representation. "They all had different offers, based on who they know, their business contacts." In the end SFX's Martin won out by making a personal connection to the young player.
Other players are moved by more material concerns. "The private plane is always the kicker," says longtime Tour caddie Ron Levin. "Fifty hours in a little jet and they sign on the dotted line."
If golf is elegant and pure in its simplicity, pro golf is entertainment, a transaction in which one side is amused and the other is compensated for it. Anthony Kim flew all over the world to cash in on appearance fees after his terrific 2008, then suffered a lackluster 2009. Maybe one caused the other, maybe not, but everyone made a nice chunk of change. That's part of the game.
As are the unpredictable struggles of players like Tryon, who perhaps didn't make it because he thought he already had. And maybe, in light of the shocking brevity of his Tour career, he was lucky to have whatever money IMG helped him make.
Perhaps Tryon will make it someday, or Barnes will figure it out, or Gossett will make a comeback. Maybe Fowler and Lovemark will jump to other agencies the way Howell and Kim did. Or maybe the new kids will be immune to distractions and shine as brightly as advertised.
The agents at the wheels of commerce on the PGA Tour will continue to keep their heads up, eyes peeled and their passports current. "I passed a driving range in Bradenton, Fla., and saw a girl swinging the club like Michelle Wie," says SFX's Martin. "She couldn't have been any older than 8 or 9, just a baby. Her dad was there. It was pretty unbelievable. I almost wrecked my car."