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Masters 2024: Right place, right time—how small, emerging brands can catch lightning at the Masters

April 11, 2024
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Dustin Johnson's golf bag sports the Grooveit club brush during a range session this week.

Maddie Meyer

The connection isn't quite the same as NASCAR's "win on Sunday sell on Monday" relationship with car manufacturers like Ford and Chevrolet, but some golf brands have struck lightning at the Masters thanks to a bit of fortuitous product placement.

That famous picture of Jack Nicklaus rolling in his putt on 17 at the 1986 Masters? The chunky, oversized MacGregor Response putter in his hand briefly became the hottest club on the market. The same was true for the Ecco Golf street sneakers Fred Couples wore deep into weekend contention at the 2010 Masters. It prompted both a supply chain nightmare for Ecco and the birth of a trend away from "classic" saddle-style spikes.

It's still happening—even when the exposure is as subtle as a player cleaning his clubs with a brush. Last year, the obsessive early-week television coverage of players' practice captured Justin Thomas using a Grooveit device attached with a magnet to his belt. "They even talked about it on TV," says Nicholas Laffin, Grooveit sales and marketing head. "We didn't know it was happening at the time, but we heard about it later that day and looked at the orders. They went crazy—up about 1,000 percent for the day."

The clever non-scratching cleaning tool has become a hit with PGA Tour players and caddies, and Laffin and his team tweaked the design with an eye for 2024 and beyond. "We thought that if we made a green one, it might go with those really cool bags the OEMs make specially for the Masters, and some players might pick them up," Laffin says. Sure enough, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy showed up Tuesday with green Grooveit Minis, which don't have the built-in water reservoir that comes on the larger sibling. Laffin and company founder Clint Sanderson had just landed in Columbia, S.C., when they saw it. They're at Augusta National this week to take it in and to try to convince the club to stock green-logoed Grooveits in the granddaddy of all merchandise shops. "Stepping onto the grass here for the first time and seeing your heroes using your product? I'm not sure I can even describe it," says Laffin, who still works his main gig as a firefighter in Ontario, Canada. "It's unbelievable."

Grooveit isn't the only small and emerging brand for whom the Masters could be a golden ticket. Ryder Cup hero Justin Rose is an early investor in sports-movement-analysis startup Mustard and is showing off the app's logo on his bag. Mustard was born from baseball-pitching guru Tom House, who used data to help players throw more effectively and avoid injury. The golf version of the app—developed with input from Rose and Golf Digest No. 1 teacher Mark Blackburn—launches later this summer and will let users shoot video of their swings and get personalized instruction through the power of proprietary AI that helps categorize and prioritize player development. "Our mission has always been to democratize the world's best coaching and help the most people get better," says Rocky Collis, Mustard CEO and co-founder. "For an investor like ours to offer to use our logo on his bag for the most special tournament of the year? We can't wait to see it out there."

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Justin Rose is an early investor in sports-movement-analysis startup Mustard and is showing off the app's logo on his bag during the Masters. Photo by Ben Walton

The mission? Build awareness and hype—and an early access wait list—so that the pump is already primed when the app goes live.

Clothing brand Municipal comes from a different starting point, with mega-star co-founder Mark Wahlberg generating plenty of early heat for the fitness-focused operation when it launched in 2019. But philosophy was similar when the company began its planned foray into a golf line: generate attention and anticipation ahead of the launch of its polo-collared t-shirts and golf hoodies. The brand signed the still relatively unknown Wyndham Clark in 2021 to be the face of the golf line. "We liked all the same things you saw about Wyndham later in ‘Full Swing,’ " says co-founder and CEO Harry Arnett. "He was dedicating himself to playing to his full potential, and we looked at him being a top five player for the next decade. As a young brand, getting him on board accelerated our perspective on how we wanted to enter the space." Clark won his first tournament in early 2023 at Quail Hollow, but it was his victory at L.A. Country Club in the U.S. Open that splashed the Municipal logo in front of golfers who might not have caught its athleisure spread in gyms and across social media. "The impact that win had on our standing in the golf industry was enormous," says Arnett, who has since added Kurt Kitayama to the Municipal stable of endorser athletes. "So many people in the trade saw it, and if we weren't on their radar before, we got on it afterward. For a young brand like ours, that was even more valuable than the incremental increase in the number of shirts we sold."

Now, Arnett must add one more meeting to his list in major-championship season: setting up the scripting for the looks Municipal's players will feature during the week. The choice of a particular model of shirt might seem inconsequential—even when it's one of Municipal's new Augusta-themed floral numbers—but the specifics of a few square inches of real estate on a player's chest can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in real-world impact. In 2022, Michigan State golfer James Piot won the U.S. Amateur at Oakmont, earning a spot in the field at the 2023 Masters. The combined exposure Piot—and the Spartan logo on his shirt—got at the Amateur and during Masters week translated into program-transforming attention for MSU. "This was literally the beginning of name-image-likeness, so it was delicate about what kind of shirt he was going to wear at Oakmont," says Michigan State head coach Casey Lubahn. "We wear the same size, and I brought an extra in case he wanted to wear the logo. He said, ‘Of course I'm going to represent Michigan State.’ The night he won the Amateur, I had something like 1,200 text messages and 40 percent of them were about the shirt. People wanted to know where they could get one!"

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The exposure from James Piot wearing the Michigan State Spartan logo on his shirt at the 2022 U.S. Amateur and 2023 Masters translated into program-transforming attention for MSU.

Andrew Redington

The special-order Sparty—MSU's jut-jawed mascot swinging a club—was a one-off from Nike. But now "swinging Sparty" shirts and other items are flying off the shelves. That merchandising was just the start: "We estimated that fundraising for the golf program—which has always been strong—went up about 40 percent," Lubahn said. "In the following two years, it's pretty much stayed there."

The dollars—and the sensitivity around college players' potential NIL money—shouldn't surprise. Sam Bennett, last year's low amateur at the Masters, probably earned high six figures in deals for his high-profile time on the first page of the leader board. Sponsors Ping, Suncast, Johnnie O, Veritex Bank and Cap Fleet got multiple hours of television exposure on a telecast with famously limited commercial interruptions. A 30-second ad during the 2024 NCAA football national championship game cost $1 million and reached more than 24 million viewers. Masters telecasts average about half that number of viewers but sustain over four days.

It's life-changing attention—and cash—no matter how you interpret it. Just be careful what you wish for.

Boutique iron maker Eric Burch saw orders for his New Level brand clubs surge 400 percent after journeyman pro Steven Alker used them to Monday qualify into a PGA Tour Champions event and parlay a top-10 finish there into exempt status and a win during the Charles Schwab Cup playoffs. L.A.B. Golf saw a similar jump when Lucas Glover used one of its putters to beat the yips and win back-to-back PGA Tour events last season. "We’re now doing in a week what we used to do in a month. Last year was our best year, by a wide margin, and if this year keeps going, we’re going to do double," Burch says. "It’s like a chef cooking for 5,000 people and giving them the same experience as five people would have. I’m enjoying that challenge.”

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