The Tiger Formula

Grooming The Next Golf Champion

Tiger Woods has done a lot for the game of golf, not the least of which is to bring a lot of green to the greens.

Tournament purses have more than doubled and sponsors are paying millions to find that next fresh face.

Kids who want to strike it rich are using the Tiger Formula: start young, work hard and give up a lot, sometimes even college. It's a full-time, family venture.

Marc O'Hair sold his share of the family company and is spending the family savings in a high-stakes gamble that his son, Sean, who dropped out of high school to become a professional golfer, will be the next Tiger Woods.

"I was in business for 20 plus years and I know what it takes to make a profit," says the elder O'Hair. "You've got the same old thing - it's material, labor and overhead."

The payoff could be in the millions in prize money and sponsorships on the PGA Tour. It's a big burden for Sean to carry.

"Yeah, I'm not gonna lie to you," Sean says. "It's a lot of pressure. But if you wanna be great, there's a lot of sacrifices you have to make. There's a lot of things that you have to do that normal people can't do."

When Sean was 15, Marc moved his family from Arizona so that Sean could attend the David Ledbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla., a boot camp for the best, where students like Sean are chasing Tiger.

At Ledbetter, that calls for 16-hour days. Kids are up before dawn for conditioning. Then they're off to the course for an entire afternoon of golf and there's schoolwork to prepare them for college. Sean spent more than a year there and was very good. By 16, he was the country's second ranked junior amateur.

That's when he quit school and turned pro. He's earned a high school GED while on the road, traveling from golf course to golf course, entering what are called Monday qualifiers, where some 150 wannabes compete for just a few slots in that week's televised pro tournament. Sean and his Dad are away from home for weeks at a time.

"It's tough," Sean admits. "But it's a whole routine now, where you gotta work out. You gotta get physical. You gotta get big, you gotta get strong."

Not only to win, but because that's what sponsors want, too. Teen-agers are one of the biggest untapped demographics in golf, and who better to advertise to them than their peers? Ask Matt Kuchar. After Tiger Woods quit Stanford University and turned pro, Kuchar was the next amateur world champion, and sponsors flocked to him, trying to convince him to do the same thing, quit school and endorse their products.

"Everybody promises the same thing, that you'll be the cover boy, basically," Kuchar says. "You know these companies want you and you're going to the main guy. You're going to be, basically, a spokesman for this, this, and this. And pretty much everybody says the same thing."

It could all add up to a million dollars pretty quickly. For example, one company might pay $50,000 just to have a teen on the tour wear a cap with its logo.

"These kids have got to be performers, first," says Marc O'Hair. "They've got to have a good smile. They've got to look good on camera. Look at those blue eyes, that blond hair. Look at that great smile. Now, if I could get somebody to give me a million bucks for him to wear their shirt, their pants, or whatever, we'd do it."

No one understands these new economics better than the International Management Group and its agents who recently signed Ty Tryon, a high school junior-turned pro, and got him sponsorship deals worth more than $1 million, even before he entered his first PGA tournament.

IMG does more than just negotiate for players; it grooms them at the David Ledbetter Academy, a school owned and operated by IMG.

Ted Meekma, the academy's executive director, says the goal of the school, which charges $40,000 a year in tuition, is to help kids get a college golf scholarship. Only two or three of a class of 150 ever make it into the tour. But if the academy does happen to train the next Tiger Woods, he acknowledges, that would be OK, too.

But business and a kid's best interests can often times collide. Take tennis and Jennifer Capriati. She signed with IMG and turned pro when she was 13, but after a strong start, her game suffered, and her personal life spun out of control. It was a public relations nightmare. And John Feinstein, an author who has written about the PGA, says the executives of pro golf took notice.

The PGA recently adopted a rule that prohibits anyone under 18 from becoming an official money winner.

At the Ledbetter Academy, you can bet the Capriati experience and the lure of early money are on the minds of these kids. They say they are determined to finish college, but understand the temptation not to.

Matt Kuchar didn't give in to that temptation. He turned down between $1 million and $2 million in offers and stayed at Georgia Tech for two more years to earn his degree.

"Even if I became one of the best golfers on the PGA tour," he says, "had I turned pro earlier, and had I been in the top five, you know, living a dream out here, I knew I would look back at a point, and say, 'God, I wish I could be that college kid again.'"

Marc O'Hair calls that kind of thinking backwards: "If you wanna play golf for a living, why go to college? You know, you're only gonna get to play golf half of the day, the rest of it you gotta study, go to school. And then at night, you can't look at tapes, work out. You gotta go study."

Unfortunately, Kuchar's last two years of college golf were unexceptional and after graduation he went to work as an investment banker, frankly unsure whether he would ever pick up the game again as a professional.

A lot of agents and instructors used him as a negative model: "Don't do what Matt Kuchar did. He walked away from that money."

That was tough to discover, Kuchar admits. "Here I was, I stay in school. I graduate. I get my degree. And yet, it's used as a negative."

Kuchar made his way onto the pro tour this year and three days after Stewart interviewed him, he won the Honda Classic, taking home $630,000 and a coveted spot in this year's Masters Tournament.

To win on the tour at his age indicates he will be a big moneymaker for very many years to come, agents and instructors say.

As for Sean O'Hair: He's earned only a few thousand dollars, a fraction of the almost $2 million his family has invested in his game. The O'Hairs have logged more than a 100,000 miles on the road, and Sean has yet to qualify for a PGA Tour event. But they are nowhere close to giving up.

"We're giving it a shot," says Marc. "And it's the best shot. He'll tell his kids one day - you know - I made it, or I gave it my best shot."