Bubba Watson’s emotional, two-hole playoff victory at the Masters Championship on Sunday will certainly raise his personal profile. It remains to be seen if it can also give the game of golf a boost.
Watson is already attracting attention by sporting a newly-minted Green Jacket to pair with his signature hot pink PING hat and matching driver shaft.
“It’s a $10 million deal. Endorsements, appearance fees, and playing fees will increase exponentially,” says Peter Stern, President of Strategic, a sports and entertainment agency that matches athletes with corporate clients.
Stern also sees Watson fast becoming a fan favorite “because of his length off the tee, his country boy demeanor, and his not having a swing coach or physiologist following his every move on the course."
Motorola Mobility made a timely decision by signing Watson as a spokesman for its new golf GPS device, the MOTOACTV Golf Edition.
“We knew he had it in him, it’s exactly what we expected to get out of it,” proclaimed Paul Nicholson, senior director of global marketing for Motorola Mobility, in discussing Watson’s win at Augusta National. “We were looking for an ambassador, someone with a different personality and approach to the sport. Bubba’s his own man; he takes a different view on how you live your life and play your sport.”
Nicholson said Watson’s monster tee shots are perfect for the MOTOACTV product. “How far he can hit the ball is core to the product, it measures distance off the tee and then from the fairway to the front, middle and back of the green.”
What Motorola Mobility also sees is a pro that younger, perhaps new, fans can relate to. “He brings a fresh approach to the game of golf. He’s tech savvy, a young guy who gets technology."
That youth movement is something the sport can use after spending the past few years literally in the rough thanks to the recession and financial crisis. It also didn't help that Tiger Woods lost his luster as the game’s main attraction due to his off-course scandal in 2009 and on-course woes that followed.
The PGA Tour has recently gotten a burst of positive publicity for some of Watson’s younger, equally flashy fellow players, including Rickie Fowler and Ben Crane, who were greenside at the second playoff hole to hug it out in celebration with Watson.
That sort of camaraderie makes for compelling TV, though it didn’t help broadcaster CBS on Sunday. Nielsen reports the two-hole sudden death playoff was the lowest rated final round of the Masters Tournament since 2004.
Marketing experts such as Strategic’s Stern see Watson and these so-called Young Guns rising to the challenge.
“His win is very good for the (PGA) Tour. He is good copy for the media and a good subject for TV. Together with players like Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan and (Rory) McIlroy, interest will climb this year. Add the mystery of Tiger's game and attitude and it will be a very interesting year in golf.”
It remains to be seen if higher interest in the sport of golf will translate into more viewers, or more importantly for the $25 billion consumer-driven industry, an increase in golfers.
The number of players has steadily declined from peaks in the 30 million range during the period between 2001-2007 to about 26 million in both 2010 and 2011, according to the National Golf Foundation [NGF].
“What happens on professional tours has only a marginal impact on recreational golf,” explains Greg Nathan, Senior Vice President at the NGF. “Even with Tiger Woods, whose effect is clearly massive in terms of generating interest among golfers and non-golfers, the primary effect is to increase TV ratings.”
Nathan said we won’t see more folks on the links until they feel more confident about their own personal finances. But he adds, “We're seeing signs that the golf industry is on the verge of a modest recovery. The pattern right now with some signs of recovery is similar to what we’ve seen coming out of previous recessions. Golf has historically been one of the last industries to be meaningfully impacted going into a recession and one of the first to emerge as the national economy improves.”
While Watson may not have needed a lesson to get out of the woods to reach the Green Jacket, most players will need lots of practice and perhaps instruction just to get marginally better.
The good news for duffers, according to Nathan, is that the industry’s supply and demand are not yet back in balance. “It’s a great time to be a golfer. The quality of golf available at every price point is likely the best in history.”