When he was winning college golf tournaments as a Fresno State senior, pro golfer Nick Watney was content to come up a few units shy of a history degree. In fact, Nick didn’t want a college degree to fall back on.
“Different things have been said about that way of thinking,” he says. “For me, it made sense. If I’d said, ‘I’ll try for X number of years to make it and then do something else,’ I’d be limiting myself. I loved golf. I figured I was going to make it.”
Nine years later, Nick is a millionaire nearly 17 times over. The Dixon native finished the Professional Golf Association’s 2011 tour season with two tournament wins, $5.3 million in yearly earnings, a career-high world ranking of 12th and a leading role on the victorious U.S. team at the Presidents Cup event in Australia.
“I’ve done all right coming from a town that doesn’t even have an 18-hole golf course,” he says.
That’s about as close as the 31-year-old comes to blowing his own horn. While the bulk of his income comes from prize money, his wholesome image helped land him sponsorship deals with Lexus, Hugo Boss, Titleist and Marquis Jet that supplement his on-course earnings.
“A guy like Nick has the looks, he’s personable, he’s such a gentleman,” says Brian Newton, president of the golf division for Gaylord Sports management, which has represented Nick since he turned pro in 2003. “If you’re playing Nick in a match and wind up losing 10 and 9, you’d still like to go have lunch or dinner with him. Corporations are proud to have him represent their brand.”
Nick’s amateur partner at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the 72-hole PGA Tour championship tournament, was Jim Lentz, president and COO of Toyota U.S.A.
“Nick’s a total class act and a gentleman,” he says. “He’s always smiling and is very accommodating to fan requests. He’s a great ambassador for Lexus and Toyota as well as the game of golf.”
Nick’s father, Brent, a former beer distributor, is awed by the way his small-town boy mixes with the rich and famous. Brent caddied for Nick at the par-3 tournament that precedes the Masters tournament each April in Augusta, Ga. Nick’s playing partner there was Tom Watson.
“It’s a different world,” Brent says. “I get tongue-tied when I’m around those people. At the Masters, I was like the pimple-faced freshman at the high school dance trying to work up the courage to talk to the most beautiful girl in school. It comes easy to Nick.”
If Brent had his druthers, Nick would have been a baseball player. As Brent likes to say, “I was his Little League coach, and he chose golf.”
Nick didn’t take up golf until he was 13, but the game was in the family genes. Brent’s brother Mike is the longtime golf coach at Fresno State. One of Mike’s collegiate standouts was his own son, Josh, who served as Nick’s role model in his formative years.
Nick entered his first junior golf tournament at 14 and finished dead last. When his father asked him afterward how he liked it, expecting a tempered response, Nick said it was a blast. He proceeded to recount to his father every shot from the round. Nick soon took to chipping balls off the carpet in the family’s Dixon home into couches and love seats.
After playing on the Dixon High School golf team as a freshman, Nick transferred to Davis High School, since he was playing most of his golf at the municipal course there and his younger sister, Kristen, was on a Davis swim team. Watney tied for first place in the Northern California high school championships as a senior and headed off to Fresno State to play for Uncle Mike.
Mike suggested Nick red-shirt his freshman season. He could practice with the varsity team each day while taking a heavier course load than the older players. Nick would have none of it, saying he wanted the chance to compete alongside cousin Josh, and he played well enough to compete in all but two matches as a freshman.
Nick was a three-time All-American at Fresno State. As a senior in 2003, he won five tournaments and was named the Western Athletic Conference’s athlete of the year for all sports. He signed with Gaylord Sports Management, a highly regarded company.
“I selected the one I felt most comfortable with,” Nick says. “I definitely didn’t know all there was to know about the business side when I started out.”
The most basic sponsorship deal for a professional golfer is with a club manufacturer. Nick signed with Titleist and resists temptation to switch clubs as his stock rises.
In 2007, he scored his first PGA Tour victory, winning the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. He won his second tour event two years later in San Diego and led the 2010 PGA Championship by three strokes before ballooning to a final-round 81.
Nick became a full-blown star in 2011, winning the WGC-Cadillac Championship and the AT&T National in Washington, D.C. He finished third on the 2011 PGA Tour money list.
He’s cashing in off the course as well. Early in Nick’s professional career, Newton arranged a regional sponsorship deal with a Lexus dealership in Fresno that eventually morphed into a national agreement. He is one of the few U.S. pros to have a clothing deal with Hugo Boss, and his agreement with Marquis Jet allows him to fly charter to a number of tournaments.
“Throwing out Tiger Woods and a few others, guys who skew the numbers, the majority of the money you make will be on the golf course,” Nick says. “I have some great relationships with my sponsors. It’s very important to represent them well. Golf is extremely public. People are close to you and can see everything. It’s important to realize that what you do and how you act stays with you.”
Nick and his wife, Amber, live in Las Vegas, just down the street from his celebrated swing coach, Butch Harmon. Along with the proximity to Harmon, the couple moved to Nevada six years ago because of the warm weather and the absence of state taxes.
He’s off to a relatively slow start in 2012, though he did make a big splash in late February by knocking off Woods in the WGC Match Play Championship. Having reached the stage where he’s regularly listed among the leading contenders before the four major championships, Nick wants to make some history before he goes back to school and completes that history degree.
“Sometimes I take a step back and think I’m very pleased, but at other times I realize there are a lot of other things I want to accomplish,” he said earlier this year. “I’m 30 years old, and I need to start winning consistently. I really want to make a run at some big things.”
When you literally don’t have a good leg to stand on, golf can be particularly frustrating — especially if you’re an aging weekend whacker with physical ailments and a set of custom irons that weren’t customized for you.
Recently, that’s my predicament.