One for the ages: the enduring appeal of golf’s legends

One for the ages: the enduring appeal of golf’s legends

Much of this attention this week at St Andrews, the home of golf and setting for the 144th Open Championship, has inevitably focused on 21-year old Jordan Spieth. The American is golf’s new superstar, winner of the first two Majors of the year and, in the unfortunate absence of world number one Rory McIlroy and continuing travails of Tiger Woods, the biggest draw in the field as the world of golf descends on Scotland’s east coast.

But as Spieth aims for a third successive Major, there will be times, especially in the opening two rounds, when the broadcast cameras will be trained on competitors at the other end of their careers.

This week will be the last time 65-year old Tom Watson, an eight-time Major winner and the 2014 US Ryder Cup captain, and 57-year old Nick Faldo compete at an Open Championship. Their final strolls, probably on Friday but perhaps on Sunday, up the 18th fairway of St Andrews’ Old Course will doubtless be accompanied by lengthy and affectionate ovations from the galleries, in much the same way as Jack Nicklaus’ emotional farewell to competition at the same venue in 2005.

Golf is continuing to attract and market itself to a younger audience, whilst at the same time retaining a healthy appreciation of its past, as evidenced by the etiquette, the ambience and, despite the eye-catching efforts of the likes of Rickie Fowler, even the dresscode.

Making the transition

The career of a professional golfer tends to be longer than that of the average sportsman; the inevitable decline in competitiveness can be gradual, often culminating in a slot on one of the lucrative senior tours on either side of the Atlantic. For players who have reached the twilight of their careers, there can also often be broadcast jobs available – Faldo has, in recent years, established himself as a punchy contributor to CBS’s golf coverage, while the likes of Sam Torrance and Colin Montgomerie have forged successful broadcast careers in the UK. Legendary figures such as Nicklaus pop up regularly during coverage of Majors, making guest appearances on broadcasts in various territories.

Many players, including several of those still active on tour, have embarked on golf course design projects, often creating companies in their own name – Swede Henrik Stenson is the latest to do so, just the week. It is not uncommon for golfers to remain highly visible to the public long after their trophy-winning days are over.

“Any professional athlete’s competitive career is finite,” says Jon Stainer, Managing Director of Repucom UK and Ireland, “but there are plenty of examples of successful golfers who have retained their appeal in ‘retirement’ and continue to be attractive to a certain type of brand. The top players of yesteryear are often fondly remembered by the public, which can make them effective spokespeople and ambassadors for brands, especially those targeting an older and wealthier demographic – categories such as watches, jets and finance, for example.

“Retired or semi-retired players also tend to have a lighter schedule, allowing greater scope for activation campaigns and appearances during events or tournaments. Their insight and experience of the game can be a valuable tool for brands looking to give guests a great experience.”

Blazing a trail

Golf’s trailblazer in building a business empire out of a successful career was – and remains – Arnold Palmer. Now 85, Palmer’s competition days are over, although he played in a pre-Open charity event at St Andrews on Wednesday. But he remains one of sport’s most recognisable and influential figures – a result of his 95 tournament wins, seven Major titles and his acknowledged and longstanding expertise in the business arena.

The ‘Arnold Palmer’ brand, honed and refined over decades, encompasses everything from a hugely successful PGA Tour event to car dealerships, the obligatory golf course designs and management to restaurants, to a print magazine for guests and members of his courses. A glance at the current commercial partners of Arnold Palmer Enterprises, the umbrella brands for his various businesses, tells its own story: the list includes Callaway, Cessna, vodka brand Ketel One, business solutions firm Insperity and long-time sponsor Rolex.

Those brands’ continuing association with Palmer is far from merely sentimental. As of June, Repucom’s Celebrity DBI tool shows that Palmer is recognised by 70 per cent of Americans – by way of comparison Spieth, 64 years Palmer’s junior, is recognised by around a third of US citizens. Spieth’s figures are bound to change as he continues his ascent, but even among Americans between the ages of 13 to 17, Palmer currently out-scores the man 64 years his junior (35 per cent awareness versus Spieth’s 15 per cent) in terms of awareness.

It underlines that as the Open Championship, one of the more historic events in a sport which has an admirable sense of history, gets underway, the list of potential golfer ambassadors for brands to consider goes well beyond the 2015 entry list.