Teeing off Bringing Golf Fever to Germany

Germany’s top golfer, Martin Kaymer, talks big prize money, possible gold medals and about his new foundation to educate children.

Martin Kaymer returns to the TPC Sawgrass course in Florida this week to defend his title at The Players Championship, where the winner gets $1.8 million in prize money. Before leaving, the 30-year-old former number-one ranked golfer in the world talked with Handelsblatt at his favorite café in Düsseldorf.

Handelsblatt: So far, 2015 hasn't been a good year for you in terms of sports. Most recently you failed to make the cut at the Masters.  When you don’t make the cut, do you think about the lost prize money?

Martin Kaymer: Honestly, over the past seven or eight years, I haven't really been thinking about prize money anymore. At the beginning, you naturally do – so you can earn your own money, to pay for travel and accommodation. But I don’t golf because of the prize money; otherwise I would not be so successful. You need to have your heart in it.

Where does your motivation come from? You have already been ranked number one in the world.

Even as number one, I still had a lot of weaknesses. But I don’t know how long this motivation will continue, how long this drive to become better will last.

After your first great success, winning the PGA championship in 2010, Germany was euphoric. There was hope that you would spark a boom in golf like Boris Becker once did in tennis. How did you perceive that?

It was very difficult to deal with because I first had to find my way in a new role. You are invited to many events, meet people whom you normally only see on TV, people who are huge role models. It was a challenge, and then I didn’t golf as well I should have. 

Video: Martin Kaymer: 2014 Players Championship Winner.

Golf has not really taken off among the German public. Why not?

People don't really understand it. For example, if you're number one, everyone expects you to win. If you come in 10th in the next tournament, it’s a disappointment. It’s different to Formula 1 racing or tennis, because the field in golf is huge. In the last five years, there have been 15 different winners in 20 major tournaments. In addition, we can only see golf on pay TV in Germany.

In 2014, you won the U.S. Open, but hardly anyone here noticed.

… Because almost at the same time, the German soccer team was playing in the World Cup in Brazil. Golf falls way behind that.

Golf has to battle many prejudices. People say it is elite, expensive and too complicated. Must the sport reinvent itself?

I train in Neuss. There, a bucket of balls costs €4 and you can borrow the club. That is cheaper than an hour of bowling or playing squash. I wish more people would simply try it, rather than strengthening old prejudices.

At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, golf will be part of the competition. Will you be there as a participant?

Absolutely. At the end of November, the course should be playable. If my schedule allows, I will fly there and play a practice round.

What do the Olympic Games mean to you?

I won't often have the opportunity to win gold. There is nothing greater for me.

There are proposals to compete in a kind of knockout system. What do you think of that?

That's likely to attract a lot of attention, that’s fine. For golfers, however, it would be a giant change. You have to be careful to keep the sport true to its basic nature, that you don’t make it unbelievable. But I am open to changes.

There are efforts to bring the Ryder Cup, the tournament between the best professionals in Europe and the United States, to Germany in 2022. Is that a good thing?

A great idea. Unfortunately, during the meeting of the golf association, only 68 percent voted for it. The rest had doubts and that’s a pity. There is a lack of support from all of the golf clubs in Germany. I cannot be disappointed by the public’s lack of interest in golf, when the golfers at home aren’t even interested by one of the largest tournaments in the world.

In golf, there can be staggering amounts of money for the top players. Rory McIlroy, the world’s current number-one player, supposedly has a $250 million ad contract with Nike. Is that even conceivable?

We all gulped when we heard about that in the news. But Nike carefully considered the decision. Athletes earn a lot of money in golf, tennis, soccer and Formula 1. You have to learn how to deal with that. Many end up basically bankrupt when they finish with the sport – because they lost their perspective.

What does money mean to you?

Freedom is worth the most to me. With money, I can have my freedom. I fly business class so I arrive to tournaments more well rested – and therefore can play better.

So far you have earned $25 million in prize money alone. How are you dealing with wealth?

My life has not changed in a major way. My apartment now is somewhat larger than that of a normal 30 year old.

Do you take care of your finances yourself?

I always keep a good overview. That is important to me. But mainly my father helps me take care of that, and I trust him.

How do you handle money?

In 2005 and 2006, when I became a professional golfer, my parents financed me. My father always had to work hard so we could go on vacation every now and then. I was raised to understand that you don’t spend money unwisely.

No small weakness for luxury goods?

I am not going to buy three Ferraris for myself. I already said that money only made me happy or excited early on. Now I would rather invite a few friends and say come to Miami for the tournament. I have more fun with that.

Is money also sometimes a burden?

When I go out to eat with people, I am often expected to pay. They know that I earn more than they do. But I also don’t have a sack in the basement where I can always get more money.

By whom do you allow yourself to be invited?

By colleagues at tournaments. We play and we go out to eat together, and then it’s credit-card roulette. That means we all put our credit cards on the table, and the waiter takes them all except one. Then the whole tab is paid on that one.

You created a foundation to support educational projects for children. What is the motivation?

I know I am very lucky in life. I was able to grow up with a roof over my head, could go to school without worries and practice the sport of my choice. I would like to try to make that possible for children who don’t have those advantages.

How can sports help?

I believe sports can positively influence people. It teaches important values such as respect, fairness and discipline.

Sponsors also place worth on those values. What do you expect from them?

You give and you take. It is that simple. However, I find the term “sponsor” false. I do not want to simply represent a company, in that I wear their logo and am paid for that. There is more behind it: How can we help each other? I like the word “partnership” better.

Your sponsor TaylorMade had a hard year. Adidas, the German parent company, had to restructure the U.S. based golf equipment maker and lay off employees. Do you feel the consequences?

My last contract would have ended in 2014. I had a super season, but knew that TaylorMade was not in a position to honor that. So I called the CEO and told him that I knew about the situation – and offered to extend the contract under the same conditions. If I start playing poorly, hopefully he will remember that (laughing).

Herbert Hainer, the head of Adidas, was no doubt happy to continue advertising with you.

Yes, every now and then we go out to eat. He is one of the few CEOs I know who really listens. What he managed with Adidas in the past is remarkable. Unfortunately, people forget that too quickly.

In Germany, 92 percent of people know Tiger Woods, but only 34 percent Martin Kaymer. Are you too good?

If I should become famous, because I win many great tournaments, then that is super. But I don’t want attention at any price. I am not like that.


Handelsblatt's Diana Fröhlich writes about Germany's celebrities and important public figures. Thomas Mersch writes about business. To contact the authors: [email protected]