I’M IN New Delhi, India, playing in the 1994 Indian PGA Championship. It’s hardly a mainstream event, so I’m surprised to see what looks, at first glance, to be an Aussie following me around. He’s possibly in his mid to late 50s, with a well-lived-in-body and the look of someone who has seen plenty of life.
After introductions, it turns out we share mutual friends, and that he has taken a day off business to drop by and say hello.
The guy’s name was John Murphy, and that day effectively changed my golf career. John took an interest, and offered to help find me some sponsorship. During the next few years, he organised deals with two leading Australian companies that enabled me to expand my horizons as a player. It wasn’t big money, but it made a massive difference to the playing options available to me. John’s intervention was the catalyst I needed at the time, and his generosity of spirit and passion for helping others will never be forgotten.
The nature of sponsorship at an individual level is poorly understood. Many assume that some form of monetary sponsorship is a given, when in fact there are a miniscule number of tournament professionals that have any backing at all. The classic ‘chicken and egg’ principle applies: corporates want to sponsor someone who has a profile that will enhance their brand, but to get to that level of profile you first need the opportunity and means to compete. At the micro-level of pro golf, you are more likely to find a sponsor through a personal relationship than by approaching the corporate world. For most, the best chance of this happening is during a pro-am when drawn to play with a businessman or executive who is also a keen golfer.
In such instances, pure playing ability is often less important than geniality and an ability to relate. One struggling professional recently struck up a conversation with a pro-am partner and found that they shared common Christian beliefs. After the round, the pro was asked what it would cost to play a full year on tour, locally and internationally. The pro suggested $150,000, all in. The next week they met again, and a deal was made for the pro to receive that amount each and every year, with no strings attached.
Luck and good fortune aren’t always bestowed by a benevolent third party. When playing in Asia in 1995, I became acquainted with Jeff Cook, an American who played on the US PGA Tour in 1991. At the beginning of the year he had no sponsors, and without a manager pushing his barrow, little prospect of finding any. Hence, when approached by a new club company to wear one of its hats, he jumped at the chance. There was one catch: they didn’t have any money to pay him. But in return for wearing their hat for the year, they would give him 2,000 shares in the as yet unlisted company. With no-one else knocking on his door, Jeff said yes and signed up for the shareholding.
That new company was called Callaway Golf. By 1995, the shares had listed on the stock market, and had risen to $36. Furthermore, they had split twice, meaning that Jeff now held 8,000 shares. By a twist of fate, that moment of chance had potentially netted him in excess of $250,000.
Then there are the moments where opportunity is lost. The late Cyril Smith, a golf fanatic from Sydney, had a wide circle of influential friends and colleagues, and convinced one, a retired Israeli billionaire, to come to Australia to play in the Coolum Classic pro-am in the late 1990s. He was, in Cyril’s words, “ready to spread the love”, and in the right frame of mind to help out with a budding career.
The quiet, unassuming billionaire was drawn to play with a young, highly touted pro from Victoria, who introduced himself on the first tee, and then barely spoke again for the next three days. For the want of a couple of tips and polite conversation, a potentially life-changing moment passed him by.
The pro now teaches at a driving range in Asia. With the gift of hindsight, he now wishes he’d handled things differently.