Bubba Watson is more Happy Gilmore than Bobby Jones. He has never taken a professional golf lesson, and his signature driver is pink. He is one of four members of the Golf Boys, who produced a music video parodying a boy band while promoting golf. In January, Watson purchased the General Lee of Dukes of Hazzard fame.
In other words, Watson is anything but the stereotypical professional golfer, but that’s what has many in the industry excited about his Masters victory on Sunday.
“I think what’s so refreshing about Bubba is his authenticity,” said Holly Geoghegan, president of Golf Marketing Services. “You compare him for instance to Tiger, and you couldn’t have two people more different. So many analysts are talking about Tiger and how technical he’s being and how hard he’s working at it -- sometimes it’s painful to see what’s going on there.
“Then you have Bubba who’s never had a lesson in his life. There’s a part of golf that at the end of the day, it’s a game. It’s recreation. That’s a piece of it we need to embrace and promote.”
Last season began with the PGA TOUR’s “Establishment vs. New Breed” ad campaign, and the players delivered. The emergence of young players like Rory McIlroy and Bill Haas last year helped increase ratings by 7 percent after a down year in 2010. It seemed to pay off in all areas of the industry. Golf Datatech, an independent research firm for consumer, trade and retail golf trends and performance, reported sales in all retail apparel categories up in 2011.
Skewing younger also helps golf attract sponsorship and advertising dollars, where the sweet spot is typically the 18- to 34-year-old viewer. Golf has seen new brands associated with a younger demographic enter the in recent years, such as Red Bull and 5-hour Energy. In addition, new apparel companies have entered the industry with trendier styles, such as 13Green.com and Travis Mathew, which Watson endorses.
It’s a start for the PGA Tour, whose average Masters viewer was 54.6 -- older than the average viewer of the World Series, NBA Finals, Super Bowl, Olympics or any other major sports property.
But the trouble for golf is that the number of young golfers is declining. The National Golf Foundation says junior golfers (ages 6 to 17 playing at least one round a year) in the United States account for just 2.5 million of the 26 million total golfers.
“There has been some attrition in the junior golf participation numbers over the past 10 years due to both economic and lifestyle factors,” said Gregory T.A. Nathan, senior vice president of the National Golf Foundation.
Nathan is referring to competing for kids’ time with other sports and activities. However, Wyeth Barclay, aka “Dub B,” a professionally trained golfer, music producer and hip hop artist, sees a disconnect between golf and other industries that influence young people.
“When I played golf, I was into hip hop. I had cornrows on the golf course. The golf world wasn’t very open to that type of look or vibe,” said Barclay. “Hip hop played a role in our lives. It’s the rock-n-roll of our generation.”
Barclay created an online reality series called “Above Par,” which features Watson in one of its episodes. By touring golf courses with young players like Watson and rock legend Alice Cooper, Barclay hopes to introduce golf to the younger generation in a way that is appealing.
“It’s important to bridge the gap between the younger demographic and the rest of golf,” said Barclay. He believes Watson is exactly the kind of player who can do it.
“Bubba represents a new breed of touring pro -- he’s on Twitter, he’s on Facebook,” said Barclay. “I can’t stress how important that is -- Bubba Watson tweeting. It helps the younger following get to know him and become a fan.”
Even more than appealing to fans, Barclay says a player like Watson can help encourage those young people he’s connecting with to play the sport. Referencing the fact that Watson has never taken a formal golf lesson, Barclay said, “Bubba can show the younger following -- you can play the game you don’t need formal training you can just get out there and immerse yourself.”
Geoghegan says that’s not enough, though. Golf as an industry has to make itself accessible once it’s garnered the attention of would-be young players.
“We as an industry promote these grandiose programs around junior golf, but there have been so few times -- I can count on one hand -- where I’ve gone to a golf course or a golf shop that promotes junior golf times.
“It’s one thing to give them the tools. You can teach a kid how to play soccer and he can go knock it around his neighborhood. But there’s a disconnect between getting kids excited about golf and then, where is the invitation to go play? We need to deliver it all the way down the line at the golf course level.”