LIV Golf has equipment companies rethinking lucrative endorsement deals

Golf equipment endorsement deals have long been a substantial source of income for professional golfers. Companies pay players and supply them with equipment and technical assistance in exchange for the right to use their name, image and likeness in advertisements and commercials.

Players also agree to be involved in photo shoots, be available for a negotiated number of corporate functions and wear the brand’s logo on their bag, hat or shirt. Incentive clauses for things like winning a PGA Tour event, a major championship, finishing first on the Tour in driving distance and making a Ryder Cup team are also common.

Fulfilling the contracts is usually easy for pros because they just need to play golf, smile, shake a few hands and stay out of trouble, but with the emergence of the LIV Golf series, brands are being forced to reevaluate their marketing plans and reassess the value of players, according to reporting by Golfweek’s David Dusek.

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Golfers are typically obligated to compete in at least 15 to 18 PGA Tour events in a season to fulfill their endorsement contracts. If the player gets hurt, brands make accommodations and adjustments.

For elite players, reaching that threshold is easy. Last season, competing in the four major championships, Austin’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, the Players Championship, then at, say, Rivera, Bay Hill, the Memorial and three FedEx Cup playoff events would get a player to 12 tournaments. Sprinkle in a few events in preparation for the majors and you’re set.

However, the PGA Tour indefinitely suspended golfers who decided to play in LIV Series events. Many high-profile (and high-priced) players who participated in the first LIV Series failed to play in 15 PGA Tour events last season.

Kevin Na played 14 PGA Tour events last season, Austin resident Sergio Garcia played 13 and Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen each played 12. Lee Westwood played in 10, Bryson DeChambeau (who was injured for part of the year) played in nine, while Phil Mickelson played six.

Now, imagine you are the CEO or the head of marketing for an equipment maker. What would you do if a player who was contractually obligated to compete in 15 PGA Tour events, and who did not sustain an injury, signed with LIV Golf, knowing he’d be suspended, and only played 11 or 12? Are you holding the player in breach of contract and not paying him, maybe prorating his payment based on how much he did play? Or just paying out the whole thing?

Cameron Smith dramatically held off Rory McIlroy to win the 2022 British Open in July after winning the Players Championship in March. The Australian had a monster year, then jumped to LIV Golf after the Tour Championship in August.

Smith plays Titleist clubs, uses a Titleist ball and bag, and even has the company’s logo on the front of this hat, the most visible, high-value piece of real estate in the golf endorsement world.

He is the highest-ranked Titleist staffer on the Official World Golf Ranking (No. 3 as of September 25), but if you click ‘Tour’ on Titleist’s website and view ‘Featured Titleist Players,’ you won’t see his picture. Texas-bred stars Jordan Spieth and Will Zalatoris are there. So are Nelly Korda, Patrick Cantlay, Garrick Higgo, Danielle Kang, Justin Thomas and Webb Simpson, but the “Champion Golfer of the Year,” who played in 18 PGA Tour events last season and won three, is not. He’s below that prime area, with a small square photo that blends in with seven others.

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Under normal circumstances, a pro who wins marquee events like the Players Championship and British Open would have his picture splashed over marketing materials and advertisements for a year. Smith has appeared recently in Titleist spots for the brand’s new drivers and balls, but at this point, it appears Titleist is holding back on promoting Smith (and his victories) as much as it might other major winners.

So, it could be argued that Cameron Smith’s choice to play in the LIV Series decreased the value of his win at TPC Sawgrass and St. Andrews for Titleist. As the champion of those events and a highly-ranked player, Smith would have been in marquee groups at PGA Tour events throughout 2023, and that means lots of exposure for Titleist, but now he will likely not be allowed to defend his title at Sawgrass (one of the highest-profile events in golf). He has a five-year exemption into the majors and can play the British Open until he’s 60, but otherwise, you can only see Smith play live on YouTube and LIV’s website.

In other words, how do you compare a golfer’s value and his exposure for a company when he’s on CBS or NBC on a Sunday afternoon in February or March to the same player in a LIV Series event that might be broadcast at the same time on Fox Sports 1 or another network that is less known for golf coverage?

Gauging a player’s actual value to a brand in the marketplace with so many unknown variables is almost impossible.

Texas A&M’s Sam Bennett shining in senior season

Texas A&M star Sam Bennett was on top of the amateur golf world in August.

Capturing the 2022 U.S. Amateur at The Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., was a new top highlight for Bennett. It proved to him he was one of the best amateur golfers. That week, he was the best.

Since then, he has returned to College Station for his final season of college golf. Life has returned mostly to normal for Bennett, but it will never quite be the same.

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“Those first few weeks were a little hectic getting back,” Bennett said. “Celebrating with some buddies, family and friends, but then having to start school right back up with qualifying, 6 a.m. workouts and all that. But it has been fun getting back with my teammates.”

The fifth-year senior from Madisonville decided to return to Texas A&M before his U.S. Amateur victory, but winning the title only strengthened his resume and the Aggies’ lineup this season.

And that strength showed Tuesday at the 2022 Blessings Collegiate Invitational at The Blessings Golf Club. Bennett fired a round of 4-under 68 to move into the top 10 on the leaderboard heading to Wednesday’s final round. He opened with a 3-over performance on Monday at the 7,700-yard, par-72 layout.

Aggies’ coach Brian Kortan said Bennett hasn’t changed.

“He’s really comfortable with what he does,” Kortan said. “That’s a guy you like to have around. He just really enjoys playing golf and competing.”

That competition was on full display at the U.S. Amateur. Whether it was club twirls or talking throughout the week how he was the favorite, Bennett isn’t afraid to boast about his talent.

Thus far during his senior season, he finished tied for 34th at the Badger Invitational in Wisconsin and tied for 17th at the SEC Match Play Championship in the stroke play portion. He lost in his match against Auburn in the match-play portion.

So, how has life changed for Bennett since winning the U.S. Amateur? Not much. But that doesn’t take away from how special a week it was.

“I’ve kind of put that past me,” Bennett said. “I mean, I’m the U.S. Amateur champion, but it gave me that little bit of extra confidence to play at the highest stage.”

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Birdies and bogies

• Former Baylor star Ryan O’Rear has won the Texas Mid-Am before, storming from eight shots back to win the 2020 event in San Antonio. But the Georgetown resident was even more emotional after winning this year’s mid-am in Abilene. The best friend of O’Rear’s son was recently diagnosed with leukemia, and, playing in his honor, he secured a one-shot victory over Colleyville’s Zach Atkinson to take the title.

• Grady Bruce won the Austin City Men's Senior Championship at Morris Williams in September, Tracey Calloway won the Women's Senior City Championship and Kevin Dahl won the Super Seniors.

Tim Schmitt is the managing editor for Golfweek, golf coordinator for the USA Today Network and lives in Round Rock. Golfweek’s Cameron Jourdan also contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: LIV Golf has player sponsors reconsidering endorsement deals