Since Tiger Woods began winning golf’s major championships, with The Masters in 1997, those who think, care, write and talk about the sport have linked and compared him to the man many called “the greatest to ever play the game”, Jack Nicklaus. Those comparisons seemed natural and were fueled by the phenom himself who said, on many occasions, besting Nicklaus’s record of 18 major professional wins was his number one goal. There was a time, pre-Thanksgiving 2009, when the young man surpassing the elder’s accomplishments seemed to be a given. Even the Golden Bear rolled out the “records are made to be broken” adage predicting that Tiger would not only break his majors count, but that Woods would “win ten Masters Tournaments alone”.
Now, after injuries, infidelities and instability, most believe Jack Nicklaus’s records are safe but as long as Tiger competes, for better, for worse or for the all-time best, he will always be linked to Nicklaus. I’d like to make the case that there are a number of reasons we should be talking as much, if not more, about Tiger Woods’s connection not to Nicklaus, but to Arnold Palmer. There are several reasons for this including their resumes and that’s where I’ll start.
Arnold Palmer won the United States Amateur Championship in 1954. Tiger Woods won the first of his three straight United States Amateur Championships forty years later in 1994.
Arnold Palmer won in his rookie year as a pro. Tiger Woods won in his rookie year as a pro.
Arnold Palmer’s first major victory was The Masters Tournament. Tiger Woods’s first major victory was The Masters Tournament.
Arnold Palmer won 29 events and five majors in a four year span (1960-1963). Tiger Woods won 27 events and seven majors in a four year span (1999-2002). In fact Tiger did it again winning 25 times and six majors in a different four year span (2005-2008)
Arnold Palmer was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1960. Tiger Woods was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1996.
Arnold Palmer was named “Athlete of the Decade” in 1969. Tiger Woods was named “Athlete of the Decade” in 2009.
Arnold Palmer won four tournaments in 1971 at the age of 42. Tiger Woods won five times in 2013 at the age of 37 and could still match, or better, Palmer’s feat well into his 40’s.
I’m not saying Jack Nicklaus didn’t receive some of these accolades as (SI’s Sportsman of the Year in 1978 and the “Athlete of the Decade” for the 70’s). He also won, not one, but two United States Amateur Championships. Despite that there are two things that will always link Tiger Woods with Arnold Palmer, and NOT Jack Nicklaus. Those two things are endorsements and eyeballs.
Let’s talk endorsements and each player’s impact on advertising. Arnold Palmer says in his book, A Golfer’s Life, that he met Mark McCormack in college and then ran into him again shortly after turning pro in 1954. At that time McCormack had formed a firm called National Sports Management with a business partner named Dick Taylor. The two hoped they could represent the interests of a few top professional golfers. After they convinced Palmer to come aboard he says, in his book, that it started with Monday exhibitions and outings worth between $300 and $500 to the golfer. With success came greater opportunities and Palmer says he decided he wanted McCormack all to himself. So, after nothing more than a handshake, McCormack gave up National Sports Management and made Arnold Palmer his sole focus.
The two men established Arnold Palmer Enterprises in 1961 and signed, among others, deals for Palmer with Coca Cola and L&M cigarettes. At the time Palmer had an equipment deal with Wilson and despite lucrative opportunities chose to remain loyal to that company until the contract expired in 1963. That year the two formed The Arnold Palmer Golf Company, making and distributing professional grade golf clubs and eventually McCormack started IMG (International Management Group) representing a number of athletes and golfers in addition to Palmer. While continuing to build that business McCormack hired a Scotsman named Alastair Johnson in the mid 1970’s and gave him one job, take care of Arnold Palmer. The two have been a team ever since.
Tiger Woods won his record breaking third straight U. S. Amateur Championship, and sixth straight USGA Championship (3 U. S. Jr Amateur Championships) in August of 1996 and then turned professional and signed with IMG. Taking a page out of the Arnold Palmer marketability playbook, the first deals made for Woods included General Motors, American Express, Accenture, General Mills and a blockbuster, five year, $40 Million agreement with Nike despite the fact that the company didn’t make balls or clubs for him to use. Woods continued to play Titleist equipment until 2003 when Nike finally made a set of clubs up to Woods’s standards. Three years after signing with IMG, Woods teamed up with IMG agent Mark Steinberg and the two have been together ever since. Steinberg left IMG in 2011 and Woods opted to stay with Steinberg and his newly formed Excel Management choosing the personal relationship over the professional one with IMG.
In 2009, unlike Palmer who left Wilson for his own company, Woods signed a five year, $105 Million extension with Nike. It was, at the time, the largest endorsement deal ever signed by an athlete and, with the TW brand as part of the stable, took Nike from a “start-up” golf company to a major player in equipment and the number one golf apparel company in the world.
In a February, 2014 article Forbes Magazine (www.forbesmagazine.com) released its list of highest paid “retired” athletes and Michael Jordan was number 1 despite not having played in an NBA game since 2003. “His Airness” made $90 Million in endorsement dollars ten years after his last game. Second on the list was 84 year old Arnold Palmer. He won $1.9 Million in prize money on the PGA TOUR in his entire career and his last win came in 1973 but 40 YEARS later he made $40 Million from various interests and endorsements.
In a different February, 2014 article, this one courtesy of @ronsirak at Golf Digest (www.golfdigest.com), Tiger Woods reportedly earned $83 Million, including a staggering $71 Million off the golf course through endorsements and business dealings. According to Business Insider Magazine that number put Woods atop the list of all athletes (Roger Federer was #2 with $71.5 Million) and well ahead of the next best earning golfer, Phil Mickelson, who pocketed $52 Million. By the way, in the same article, Arnold Palmer was ahead of every other golfer including Jack Nicklaus, Henrik Stenson and Rory McIlroy. But the dollars tell only part of the story.
You could contend, and I’m about to, that Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods were/are the sport’s biggest stars. Arnold Palmer led golf into the television era and television made Arnold Palmer famous. Years later Tiger Woods led golf into another television stratosphere and the medium repaid him by making him the most famous athlete in the world. Many people credit Philo T. Farnsworth as the “Father of Television” for creating and patenting the camera tube on August 25, 1930, and later the cathode ray tube which would become the receiver. Many inventors worked on devices before and after Farnsworth but most agree it was he that developed the first system complete with receiver and camera, which he produced commercially from 1938 to 1951.
The first television broadcast is said to be scenes from the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City and the first broadcast of a sporting event on TV is thought to be a baseball game on May 17, 1939 between Princeton and Columbia universities. Golf came to national television in the 1950’s. In 1954 United States Open Championship was broadcast across the country for the first time and CBS first started broadcasting The Masters in 1956. It started with a half hour of coverage from Augusta National on Friday, then expanding to an hour on Saturday and Sunday. In 1958 CBS expanded AND contracted the coverage adding an extra half hour on the weekend but eliminating Friday’s broadcast altogether. Arnold Palmer won his first green jacket that same year. Frank Chirkinian began his service as the Producer and Director of the CBS coverage in 1959. Chirkinian told Randall Mell of golfchannel.com in a 2009 interview that, “The camera is all knowing. It either loves you or it doesn’t. It loved Arnold Palmer and it still loves him.” Palmer would win Chirkinian directed Masters Tournaments on CBS in 1960, 1962 and for the last time in 1964. Chirkinian also said of Palmer, “It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading or where he was, you had to show him. You never knew when he might do something special.” Sound familiar?
Famed author George Plimpton described watching Arnold Palmer this way, “Trying to follow Arnold Palmer down the course was not unlike running before the bulls at Pamplona.” Ask any PGA TOUR player how they felt about playing in the grouping in front of Tiger Woods during his prime.
Tiger Woods has been on television since he was two and a half years old. On October 6, 1978, Woods appeared with his father, Earl, on the Mike Douglas Show. We watched his first United States Amateur Championship win on ABC in 1994 and the next two on NBC. ESPN showed his professional debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1996 which, by the way, included a hole in one and The Golf Channel has followed every move he’s made since that all-golf network launched on January 17, 1995. I know I was there. TGC used the sport’s two most famous players, Palmer and Woods, to showcase the network to cable companies when it was making the switch from a pay cable to a basic cable service in 1997. The two “starred” in the Arnold Palmer Golf Gala from Laurel Valley Country Club, an annual “match” that benefitted local charities in the Pennsylvania community. It worked. On another, later, occasion The Golf Channel brass made the controversial decision to record a Tiger tournament round in the morning and then play it back during their airtime window that afternoon instead of showing live golf featuring the other half of the tournament field. That just one more indication of how brightly Tiger’s star burned. That move drew the ire of the PGA TOUR but was ratings gold for the network. CBS golf producer Lance Barrow would surely echo, his mentor, Frank Chirkinian’s words about Arnold Palmer when talking about his present day equivalent, Tiger Woods. You always have to keep a camera on Tiger, whether he is first or last, because you never know when he might do something spectacular.
Arnold Palmer may not be considered the greatest player of all time but he will always be the sport’s most beloved athlete and a huge reason for that is that his charisma and swashbuckling style translated well on television. Tiger Woods will never be the game’s most popular player but one day he will be the winningest player in PGA TOUR history. He may also end up the most famous golfer who ever lived and he would have become that with or without the existence of The Golf Channel. On the flip side The Golf Channel would probably be around today but it would never have been worth billions to Comcast without the existence of Tiger Woods.
It makes perfect sense to link and compare Tiger Woods to Jack Nicklaus, if only because of golf’s obsession with major championships. But I believe Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer should also be constantly compared because of what each meant to entire generations of the sport’s supporters and sponsors.