On a clear morning at the PGA West Stadium Course, two PGA Tour pros are rolling on the practice green and casually discussing a topic that has been shrouded in mystery for decades: equipment contracts.
“[Equipment contracts] one pro told the other. “It definitely gives you options.”
Until 2016, equipment contracts were a big part of the financial earnings in the professional ranks, with the likes of TaylorMade, Callaway and Nike boasting huge touring stables featuring a mix of star strength and up-and-comers. Then there was a seismic jolt to the status quo when Swoosh announced that they would be shutting down not only their tour program but also Hard Merchandise.
Names like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, and Tony Finau are suddenly free agents. In the years that followed, equipment-free agency became a viable option as tour wallets continued to increase and players began to look for lucrative deals with the non-endemic. By the end of 2018, free agents had held all four major leagues — a moment that finally made pros question whether or not to sign a full deal. Is that true Deserves all the effort.
For the most part, the value of an equipment deal is directly related to the name and how the manufacturer views its potential future earnings. Are they on an upward trajectory for more airplay during the final round? Or is he a promising new starter who is just hoping to earn enough to keep his card?
“Equipment contracts are very difficult to predict,” said an equipment tour rep who agreed to speak to GOLF.com on the condition of anonymity. “As much as some claim they have a formula, they’re basically playing roulette. Some guys will beat you up and make you look smart. Others will ignite. It’s all about getting more hits than a flame. It sounds easy, but it really isn’t.”
In recent years, several of those big names (Woods, McIlroy, Koepka, Finau) have gone on to sign seven-figure club and football deals. In most cases, the money was just too good to pass up. But what about beginners on the tour? As purses continue to rise, some have pondered the idea of going it alone without a club contract, including Kyle Westmoreland, a pro who just happens to be puttingt putt on the PGA West practice green.
The 31-year-old Air Force captain earned his 25th and final tour card via the Korn Ferry Tour last season, becoming the first Air Force graduate to earn full-time status. Shortly after being presented with his card, Westmoreland was back on the road to take it to the Fortinet Championship as a member of the PGA Tour.
“It was a whirlwind,” Westmoreland told GOLF.com. “One minute, I’m getting my tour card, and the next minute I’ll be in Napa playing a PGA Tour event. I don’t think I have a chance to take the gravity of the moment until later in the year.”
Through the end of 2022, Westmoreland has played its first six events as a member of PXG’s Tour Team. But as the calendar turned to 2023, his equipment deal had expired, giving him the opportunity to test out the equipment on his own terms.
“It’s nice to have all these bags of putters on the PGA Tour, but you can go down a rabbit hole pretty quickly,” he admitted. “I love doing my stuff. But coming from the Korn Ferry Tour to the PGA Tour, oh [equipment] Contract expired. People care if you play them [equipment] a lot here. But obviously it depends on the equipment contract. I don’t like testing a lot during the season – I like continuity and I don’t like changing variables. But at the same time, it was only natural to want to see what was out there.
“The Korn Ferry season ends and after five days, you’re playing in Napa, so there’s not much time to get tested. You end up pushing it back even after RSM. You played 33 events last year, so you’re using the end of the year to take some time off. There’s not a lot of time to test — and you don’t want to test when you’re off duty.”
After taking 10 days off, Westmoreland headed to Memphis to “test every new driver on the market” with his trainer, Jeff Smith. For Westmoreland, who’s 6’3″ and ranked 13th on the Korn Ferry Tour in driving distance (319 yards) last season, a driver is a club he can make a week out of when he’s working.
“I didn’t want to change the shafts and I wanted the weight to be the same from driver to driver,” he said. “I wanted to take what I’ve done and put it on an even playing field and go through it for a couple of days to see which one comes out on top. As you’re hitting more and more drivers, you want to make sure you have a swing, so it’s important to test with a trainer in a controlled environment where you can Comparing apples to apples. If you take woods and hit them on separate days, the variables can change. You also want to spray the face for spot-on painting.”
The comprehensive driver test session at Westmoreland was designed to reveal if anything had more speed and a tighter drift than its player. It also helped answer another question: Was there a Tour brand worth pursuing for a larger equipment contract, or was it better to start the year as a free agent and gamble on himself?
“I definitely considered going [the free agent route]He said. “A lot of guys are going in that direction because if you play more golf and it helps you putts here and there, you’re going to make up for what you’re doing with your equipment.”
Patrick Cantlay recently split with Titleist for free agency, but Westmoreland is well aware that while he and Cantlay are both members of the tour, they are in very different positions in their careers.
“Patrick’s bank account is bigger than mine, so his downside is very sheltered,” Westmoreland said. “Coming from the Korn Ferry Tour, some guys are in a different place financially. So there’s a benefit to protecting the bottom line. You’re here, so there’s definitely value in fresh graduates playing under club contract and having some reserves.
“On the flip side, I think there’s value in not having a contract with the club. But for me, the pros and cons, at least for a while, I wanted to give it a try. It’s a lot easier when the company gives you some flexibility to play whatever ball or bat you want.”
Financial stability is everything for touring beginners, which is why many willingly take money from manufacturers—upwards of $400,000 for a full bag deal—for a baked-in financial back-up. It is one of the main reasons why Westmoreland chose to strike a club deal with Cobra Golf after noticing improvements in performance from the golf club Aerojet driver.
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“The other benefit of playing with a club contract is the people,” he said. “Being there to help you with what you need. Men love [Cobra Tour rep] Ben Schomin has a lot of valuable insights from working with guys like Bryson [DeChambeau] agent [Berkshire]Guys who are very fast and love to test.
“I’ve got nine clubs in the bag at the moment. But as the season goes on I’ll slowly work on the rest of their equipment. There’s no pressure to move on. They want to make sure every iron does what it wants. We’ll do it in some tests in non-weeks. More than anything Else, it’s good to have the resources.”
Another thing Westmoreland drew to the Cobra was the ability to keep playing the same Titleist Pro V1 golf ball—a piece of gear pros are less inclined to change unless the money number being thrown is big.
“I think it’s important to play whatever ball you want,” he said. “That’s where you start in terms of equipment for me. Some brands just can’t do that. I wanted to keep my ball and keep as many constants as possible when I started testing. But off the ball, you have to love the company’s equipment. I wouldn’t I never sign with a company without testing all the things first and being absolutely sure I can work in their equipment or meet the end of the contract.
“However, if the driver is not performing, it is not worth playing. It is almost worth breaking the contract, depending on the venue. I don’t think you should ever terminate the contract, but there is a point where you have to be willing to say, ‘Hey, I’m trying’.” I’m playing my best golf here, and if I’m not playing my best, it’s no good for anyone.”
Westmoreland hopes the Cobra deal turns out to be beneficial for both parties this season.
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