Meet the man who helped make Tiger Woods a golf legend

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When Tiger Woods won his first major championship at the 1997 Masters, the 21-year-old golfer strode off the final green at Augusta National Golf Club to be embraced by his jubilant father, Earl, and his mother, Tida.

Amid the hullabaloo, the very next person to congratulate him was Hughes Norton, the agent — or “rainmaker” — who had already made the young Californian a multi-millionaire long before he’d won a professional tournament.

Tiger Woods makes one of his first public appearances — on The Mike Douglas Show in 1979. WENN
Tiger Woods makes one of his first public appearances — on The Mike Douglas Show in 1979. WENN

I was on top of the world, repping the hottest athlete on the planet, and reveling in my role as rainmaker,” writes Hughes Norton in “Rainmaker: Superagent Hughes Norton and the Money Grab Explosion of Golf from Tiger to LIV and Beyond’ (Atria Books),

As head of the golf division at global sports agency IMG, Norton worked with some of the most recognizable names in golf, including Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman, across the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

And now he had the biggest star of all — Tiger Woods.

Norton first met Woods when the golfer was just 12, persuading his parents at their family home in Cypress CA that when the youngster turned professional he should entrust him and IMG to look after him. “I had just been reading about this kid who had been on “The Mike Douglas Show” when he was 3 years old and made a hole-in-one when he was 6.

“I just thought, well, in a world of good prospects, this kid really seems to stand out,” he told The Post.

It was Norton’s job to “drive an IMG stake in the ground” with the Woods family. “I told them all about IMG and how we were the best at this in the world but it wasn’t really a sales pitch,” he added.

Woods’ parents Kultilda and Earl and then girlfriend (and eventual wife) Elin Nordegren look on as Tiger wins his third Masters title in 2002. REUTERS
Woods’ parents Kultilda and Earl and then girlfriend (and eventual wife) Elin Nordegren look on as Tiger wins his third Masters title in 2002. REUTERS

“I mean, Tiger was only 12!”

Fast forward seven short years to 1996 and Tiger Woods, now the only golfer in history to win three consecutive US Junior Amateur Championships and three consecutive US Amateur Championships, turned pro amid a blizzard of lucrative endorsements, all negotiated by Norton.

Some of the deals were unheard of in the pro game, not least as this was a 20-year-old kid who had just dropped out of college.

His clothing deal with Nike guaranteed him $40 million over five years, regardless of performance, and featured escalating bonuses for tournament wins and improvements in world rankings.

Mal McCrea
Mal McCrea

The contract struck with equipment manufacturer Titleist, meanwhile, gave Woods $20 million over five years, again with lucrative add-ons.

But when Norton presented Woods with the contracts in a Milwaukee hotel, his reaction was muted, even though he was now earning four times what then world number one Greg Norman was making.

“That’s not bad, right,” he shrugged.

Norton was taken aback.

“I thought a more appropriate response might have been: “Holy shit, Hughes, that’s incredible!” he said. “But Tiger just signed them and went off to get a Coke and a burger, like he always did.”

As Tigermania exploded, other deals followed.

Amex paid him $25 million over five years. EA Sports gave Woods $1 million to use his likeness on a computer game and Rolex stumped up an annual retainer of $200,000 — with another $645,000 in royalties on a Tiger Woods Signature Tudor watch.

Japanese beverage maker Asahi, meanwhile, signed a three-year deal with Woods worth $4.6 million per annum in return for a one-day commercial shoot each year, Wheaties gave him $250,000 to be on their cereal box and Golf Digest paid him $320,000 for just four hours of his time a year.

With the cash rolling in, Norton also moved Woods from California to Florida to save millions of dollars in state taxes.

For the young Woods, though, the riches earned off the golf course – or “paper money” as he called it – meant nothing compared to that made on it. “It honestly never mattered to him,’ said Norton. “But then why would it? He had $60million in the bank at 20, guaranteed.

Norton (here with Woods and his father, Earl) became almost as famous as Tiger himself, which ultimately led to the super-agent’s downfall. Norton Family Archive
Norton (here with Woods and his father, Earl) became almost as famous as Tiger himself, which ultimately led to the super-agent’s downfall. Norton Family Archive

In fact, as Norton explains, if any of his contractual obligations required his time he viewed it as tiresome. “His response was ‘Fuck ‘em’,” he writes. “It really didn’t matter whether the contract was for $100 or $100 million. If it brought a pain-in-the-ass time commitment, it was more trouble than it was worth.”

As his handler-in-chief, Hughes Norton was tasked with “managing the maelstrom” of Tigermania, a phenomenon that went through the stratosphere when Woods won that first major title at the 1997 Masters.

In his first year as a professional, Norton received 1,545 requests for Woods’s time, nearly all of which were rejected. “Managing Tiger had put us in the business of pissing people off,” he writes.

Woods signed a deal with Asahi beer of Japan that netted him millions for just one day of work per year.
Woods signed a deal with Asahi beer of Japan that netted him millions for just one day of work per year.

For Norton, the sight of Woods dominating his sport represented success unlike anything he had experienced. “When you could have so many failures in this field, to start with somebody so early and they turn out to be a generational talent is especially rewarding.

“It rarely happens but when it does it’s great.”

Norton’s efforts to ensure Woods’ financial stability didn’t go unrecognized.

At the end of 1997, after the player’s breakthrough year, Norton’s IMG salary surged to $750,000 a year, with huge bonuses included.

Early in his career Woods signed a deal with Rolex giving him $200,000 per year. Soon he would be making far, far more.
Early in his career Woods signed a deal with Rolex giving him $200,000 per year. Soon he would be making far, far more.

“It felt great,” he writes. “But the best recognition came from Tiger one day when he said, ‘Hughesy, you and I make a great team—we’re both number one in the world at what we do’.”

Barely into his 20s, Woods soon became world number one – the youngest and fastest ever to reach that mark. “Bottom line, life was good for Tiger, and by extension, good for me,” said Norton.

Yet despite setting Woods up for life, Norton’s relationship with the golfer came to a shuddering halt in 1998 when the agent himself agreed to be interviewed and photographed for a Golf World cover story about Woods’s commercial success.

Tiger was livid.

In one year alone, Woods’ team received more than 1,500 requests for appearances and events. REUTERS
In one year alone, Woods’ team received more than 1,500 requests for appearances and events. REUTERS

It was, writes Norton, “the worst strategic decision of my career.”

Soon after, he met Woods outside the clubhouse at the Isleworth Golf & Country Club in Orlando where the “expressionless” and “zombie-like” golfer confirmed he was firing him.

“It was a shock, especially when you feel like you’ve done a great job,” he said.

“But that’s how Tiger operates. One minute you’re on the inside, the next you’re out.

Hughes Norton during the early 1990s when he was deep along his journey to make Tiger Woods a superstar. Norton Family Archive
Hughes Norton during the early 1990s when he was deep along his journey to make Tiger Woods a superstar. Norton Family Archive

“He just cuts you right out.”

While Woods stayed with IMG, taking on Norton’s protege, Mark Steinberg, as his new agent, Norton fell on his sword, his departure from the agency cushioned by a $9 million severance package.

Virtually overnight, Norton admits he made a 180-degree lifestyle change, becoming a near recluse in what he calls a “self-imposed exile.”

Meanwhile, Norton has watched Tiger Woods from a distance, astonished by his achievements in the professional game but not exactly impressed by the many scandals that he has been publicly embroiled in away from the golf course.

“Well, let’s be honest, it’s been a disaster. Sometimes it’s like he never grew up, right? I mean, it’s just so crazy,” he said.

And have he and Tiger talked? “In the 25 years since, I have not heard one word from Tiger Woods.”