A Frantic Search for the Next Tiger

Is golfer Ty Tryon, a pro at 17, being rushed by sponsors?

Ty Tryon insists that he's just a normal teen who likes hanging out with his friends and devouring fast-food hamburgers. Yet no 17-year-old in America had an October like Ty's.

First, Callaway Golf Co. (ELY ) signed Tryon to an endorsement contract. The next day, Target Corp. (TGT ) hired the Orlando high school junior to model a new "youthful" sportswear line that the discounter will be selling next spring. All told, Tryon's endorsement deals, with incentives, could hit $1 million this year.

That's a reflection of the promise and pizzazz that this golf prodigy has displayed in a few forays on the PGA Tour this year. It also speaks volumes about the feverish pursuit of sports marketing's next big thing. "Everyone is searching for the next Tiger Woods, that breakout guy who might emulate what Tiger has done," says sports marketer Jeff Bliss, president of Javelin Group in Alexandria, Va.

Tryon has 50 tournaments to win before he can share bragging rights with Tiger. But for someone who can't legally order a pint of beer, he has made impressive strides. Last March, while just 16, Tryon became the youngest player since 1957 to survive a 36-hole cut on the PGA Tour. Four months later, at the B.C. Open, Tryon briefly had the lead after a blistering, first-round 65. "Ty is certainly a phenom and someone who will be getting a significant amount of attention the next few years," predicts Andy Pierce, a senior vice-president at IMG, the sports-marketing giant that represents both Tryon and Tiger.

"COMPETITIVE FIRE." In August, Tryon--who has his own Web site (tytryon.com) and sports car (Lexus IS 300)--announced his most audacious move: turning pro. Even Woods opted for two years on Stanford University's golf team before joining the pro ranks.

For Target, though, Ty's tender age may be the whole point. As part of his three-year deal with the Minneapolis-based retailer, Tryon will help develop a line of shirts and slacks aimed at young shoppers. Will other teens want to be like Ty? "I haven't thought about it," says Tryon. "Maybe they'll see me [on tour] and think, `That's cool."'

Callaway expects that Tryon's appeal will extend far beyond the MTV set. "We think as many 60-year-olds will be talking about Ty Tryon as 15-year-olds," says Callaway Senior Vice-President Mike Galeski. In signing Tryon, Callaway continues to lock up players with the potential to challenge Woods. Callaway spokesman Charles Howell III, 22, is finishing a brilliant rookie season with $1.5 million in tourney winnings. "We have a couple of young guys here who have that competitive fire to go out and beat Tiger Woods," says Callaway CEO Ron Drapeau.

Callaway's excitement about Tryon turning pro doesn't seem to be shared by the PGA Tour, which views his early exit from the amateur ranks with alarm. In September, it enacted the so-called Tryon Rule, which bars players under 18 from membership in the Tour. That won't stop Tryon from playing the Tour under sponsor exemptions, of which there will be plenty, given his reputation and IMG's clout. And by June, when he turns 18, Ty will have finished Tour qualifying school and could be a card-carrying PGA pro.

Even if that happens, his agent says Ty hopes to play the Tour only on a part-time basis until he graduates. But some PGA veterans still question whether turning pro before the junior prom is ever the right call. "The pressure, the weekly grind--it's not a good environment," says veteran golfer John Cook, whose son played on the same high school golf team as Tryon last year. "[Ty is] a great kid with a phenomenal attitude. But I don't know of a teenager who could handle it." Cook says he has offered much the same assessment to Ty and his dad, Bill Tryon, a mortgage banker, and that he and the Tryons agreed to disagree.

"I understand people think it's strange. It is strange," says Ty of turning pro. "But does it matter what other people think? I love golf. It's my life. I'm not expecting to come out on the Tour and succeed all of a sudden. I'm willing to fail. The next couple of years are more of an apprenticeship."

Still, the influence of endorsement riches on Ty's decision to make the leap is hard to ignore. Tryon concedes that the prospect of such deals "did encourage me. I'm not going to lie about that." But Target and Callaway execs insist they studiously remained hands-off until Tryon and his parents had finalized their plans. "We weren't at the front pushing Ty to come play pro golf," notes Drapeau, who points out that before the deal was signed, company officials wanted assurances from Tryon and his parents that Ty intends to finish high school.

Tryon gave his word. He might even attend graduation--if the U.S. Open isn't on the same day.

By Mark Hyman

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