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How Celebrities Sell Golf

At the start of the 2018 golf season, Tour pro Martin Trainer tweeted out two goals. Earning his PGA Tour card seems obvious. As for the second one? To play with Steph Curry at the Ellie Mae Classic. Such is the star power of the Golden State Warriors’ sharp shooter, whose love for the fairways seemingly knows no bounds. Curry is reportedly in talks to host his own PGA Tour event in the Bay Area beginning next season.

“I just want to be a part of the game and growing the game,” Curry said when he played in the Ellie Mae Classic — with Trainer, by the way.

“It’s been something that I’ve enjoyed, it’s given me, my dad and my family a lot of great moments and memories,” Curry added. “To continue to raise awareness over how fun this game is and how we can open doors to a lot of people that don’t necessarily know about the game right now, unlock some talent and try to continue to spread the game as far as it can go.”

Steph Curry reacts to a missed putt at the 2018 Ellie Mae Classic. (Photo credit: Lachlan Cunningham | Getty Images)


Some of the biggest stars in professional sports gravitate to golf in their free time and after their playing careers – names like Curry, Kelly Slater, Tony Romo, Michael Phelps, Aaron Rodgers, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, Wayne Gretzky, John Smoltz, Elena Delle Donne and Abby Wambach. In addition to Curry’s sponsor invite on the Tour, Romo teed it up in the PGA Tour’s Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, Smoltz qualified for the U.S. Senior Open and Phelps and Jordan could be seen following Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup, respectively, proving that what veteran pro Doug Sanders once said still rings true today: “Golfers are the celebrities for celebrities.”

Like many of us, some elite athletes and entertainers are also fans of PGA Tour players and frequently follow the competition. Using its assets to build relationships with them, the Tour has started offering ways in which celebrity figures can attend an event and get a closer view of the action inside the ropes and meet its players. The rapper Big Boi and football players Ed Reed and DeMarcus Ware followed Tiger Woods at the Tour Championship while Lance Armstrong and Matthew McConaughey trailed Bubba Watson on his way to victory at the WGC Dell Match Play.

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In many instances, they are experiencing that “inside the ropes” viewpoint of the world’s best golfers for the first time, but they bring a passion and appreciation for what these players do on a weekly basis, and it shows in the interaction. In turn, the athletes and entertainers bring increased exposure to the Tour brands, its tournaments and players.

“Leveraging the use of social media, the Tour is able to reach new audiences and attract new fans through these influencers’ audiences,” says Joel Schuchmann, Vice President of Communications for the PGA Tour. “The Tour has seen an increase in social media engagements, followers and impressions by hosting elite athletes at tournaments and capturing moments of them interacting with our players.”

Attracting some of the most competitive athletes in the world is another indication that golf is the “game of a lifetime.”

These famous faces infuse golf with a sense of cool and play a role in attracting a broader audience to golf. That extends to women in the game, from actresses like Jessica Alba, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Cameron Diaz to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Certainly, many celebrities and athletes are blessed with the time and disposable income to play golf, whereas the game remains very much aspirational for a large group of people. But celebrities playing golf inspires participation and makes non-golfers aspire to want to play the game, too.

A recent NGF survey found that two-thirds of interested non-golfers said it would positively influence their perception of the game if they learned that some of their favorite celebrities or athletes played golf, or was one of their favorite hobbies. The majority of interested non-golfers (58 percent) said they would be more inclined to give golf a try if they saw a favorite celebrity or athlete having fun playing the game or sharing their memorable experiences.

The PGA Tour has long benefited from the link between celebrities (actors and entertainers) and golf, from Bill Murray to Mark Wahlberg and Justin Timberlake. The 1960s and ’70s was the golden era of the celebrity host. Bing Crosby, Glen Campbell, Sammy Davis Jr., Joe Garagiola, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Ed McMahon, Danny Thomas, and Andy Williams all had their names attached to various Tour events in 1980. In addition to acting as the event’s figurehead, they typically served as the primary entertainers at the pro-am parties.

Musician Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish fame has performed at several Tour events and hosts a popular pro-am after the Masters Tournament. Timberlake is a regular at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, partnering with Justin Rose, and One Direction star Niall Horan has donned the white coveralls for pal Rory McIlroy at the Masters Par-3 Contest and showed off his golf skills in the Ryder Cup celebrity match. Timberlake, who formerly served as tournament ambassador for the PGA Tour’s Shriners Hospital for Children Open, once explained golf’s appeal as “an escape.”

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“We had just played three shows in a row, indoor arenas, and I was getting cabin fever,” Timberlake said. “My stage manager got me out on the course, and I just started hitting balls on the range. I walked 18 with him and played a couple holes, and then on 18 I hit a perfect drive and I was hooked.”

Musicians tend to perform at night and therefore have a lot of free time during the day, making them a natural for golf. But did you know that surfers also tend to have a natural affinity for golf?

Looking at the most avid participants (those who said they played golf 8+ times) among those who play other sports, surfing is near the top of the list. Outdoor enthusiasts, in general, gravitate to golf, with pastimes like jet skiing, trap/skeet shooting, white water kayaking, snowboarding, bow hunting and stand-up paddling among the other top crossover participation activities.

NGF research finds that almost 20 percent of surfers said they played golf 8-or-more times. That’s the highest from a list of more than 100 sports/pastimes, from archery to yoga. When looking at athletes who played golf at least once, the highest percentage was hockey players (42 percent), with surfing checking in at almost 35 percent. Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion and an avid surfer in his own right, understands the allure of golf for surfers.

“They’re individual sports, so you can relate to both a bit,” said Scott, who termed himself between a 10-12 handicap when it comes to surfing. “There are a lot of similarities: the individual challenges, it’s all on you; the environment is changing all the time, no two waves are exactly the same and no two shots and courses are exactly the same.”

Adam Scott invited professional big-wave surfer Benji Weatherly to caddie for him at the PGA Tour’s Sony Open in Hawaii. (Photo credit: Stan Badz | PGA TOUR)

Promotion of golf’s crossover appeal can lift the image of golf and, by extension, that of a brand.

Callaway Golf, dating to its use of singer Celine Dion, hard-rocker Alice Cooper and former boxer Sugar Ray Leonard as brand ambassadors in the 1990s, has been successful at reaching outside the game’s confines to show the perfect marriage between celebrity and golf.

Harry Arnett, Callaway’s Senior Vice President of Marketing and Brand Management, launched “Callaway Live,” a live studio show, four years ago in which he plays host and sits down with some of the biggest names in and out of the golf industry to talk about all-things golf. Musician Adam Levine, NFL star Matt Ryan and pro surfer Evan Geiselman are among the past guests.

“We don’t formally use celebrities, but we definitely like to engage with famous people through the game,” Arnett says. “Our belief is more about letting consumers inside the tent in the great relationships we’ve been able to forge with all kinds of people through golf.”

Ted Eleftheriou
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