The Masters is the golf industry's annual ignition switch
On the surface, it may seem incongruously absurd. The Masters, that friendly gathering of golf’s elites at that private club in eastern Georgia with just 300 members, is not merely the site of golf’s most storied, seminal major championship. It is the ignition switch that starts the engine that is the golf industry.
So many corners of the golf industry wait for Masters Week like it’s Christmas morning that it ought to be declared its own kind of holiday. The Super Bowl and March Madness and even Wrestlemania may capture the attention of hordes of sports fans, but none of those events can really determine the direction of an industry. No one buys more helmets or basketballs or, well, wrestling tights based on those televised spectaculars. But without any contractual arrangement, golf seizes upon the Masters not merely as its spiritual touchstone, but it’s economic one, too. It doesn’t matter if you’re a golf company with global reach or a retailer with a single store, the minute you hear those piano keys warbling out Dave Loggins’ legendary “Augusta” theme, you can also hear golf’s cash register ring.
“It is an absolute monster for us,” said Jason Fryia, president of Golf Exchange, which has five stores in the Cincinnati and northern Kentucky region. Fryia builds an extensive promotion around the tournament. “It’s one of our biggest sales of the year. It propels some of my stores in a manner that leads to April being their largest volume month of the year. I’m not sure it's even possible for me to overstate the importance of the Masters for us.”
While the Masters brings an estimated $120 million to the Augusta metro area, its numbers for the golf business as a whole are less well-defined. But on an individual golf product basis the tournament can be transformational. Jack Nicklaus’ win in 1986 with an oversized MacGregor Response putter led to a remarkable sales run that continued for years. Fred Couples literally changed the shoe business when he debuted the spikeless Ecco Hybrid at the Masters in 2010. And just a couple of years ago when both Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose battled into a playoff, each sporting versions of TaylorMade’s Spider Tour, it helped cement that putter as the No. 1-selling model in the industry.
David Abeles, TaylorMade president and CEO, calls the first major “the most connected emotionally in our game and possibly the world of sports, maybe up with the Olympics.” Incoming call rates for his company “accelerate literally by 50 percent the day after the Masters.”
“There’s just a different brand of history there, and it does ignite the industry,” he said. “It implicitly moves golf forward at the right time of year.”
The Masters ends hibernation for a lot of weekend golfers. It’s the golf business’s rite of spring, too, reinforcing action plans and, for much of the country, the start of demo days and serious product trial. Callaway’s Harry Arnett, senior vice president marketing and brand management, grew up in Atlanta and personally experienced the Masters as a rite of spring. He thinks the juice of the Masters doesn’t have to be product specific.
“It has benefits to brand momentum, and the exposure that a brand can get is important, even beyond an individual product,” he said. “Of course, we’re prepared if something gets a lot of attention, and when one of our guys has won, we’ve been here all day on Sunday figuring out how to amplify that.”
That sense of a beginning is not wishful thinking; it’s numbers. As tracked by Golf Datetech, sales of clubs jump significantly in April and have for the last two decades. For example, metalwood business in April grew by an average of 20 percent over March in the last five years, and April has been the number one month for metalwood sales—ahead of more true in-season months May, June and July—the last three years. In terms of dollars, putter sales last April increased 40 percent compared to March. April also was the No. 1 month for shoe sales in 2018.
Perhaps even more important than the Masters’ potential to amplify a specific product is how the year’s first major lays the groundwork for the game’s entire economy to thrive. Whether it’s Masters parties at the club or morning shotguns before Sunday’s final round, the Green Jacket is so many weekend golfers’ seasonal green light.
“The Masters definitely serves as the harbinger of the golf season,” said Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association. “Unlike how the American retail industry measures the economic impact of the holiday season with Black Friday, we have never measured the broad economic impact the Masters has upon the universe of golf courses around the nation or world. But I’m sure if we could, it would be a big number.”
The reasons the Masters matters so much are a combination of timing and quite simply the usually flawless way the game is presented through the setting of the Masters.
“Name an industry that has an infomercial running Thursday through Sunday on national television,” said David Pillsbury, CEO of ClubCorp, the owner and operator of more than 200 private clubs, the largest in the U.S.
Pillsbury thinks the new schedule this year with major or major-like events every month from March through August could be special. “You’ve got this surge of premium events that absolutely create energy and interest about the game,” he said. “I anticipate that we should have a significant increase in the level of interest because of the new schedule, and of course the Masters really signifies everybody getting golf fever.”
The way the Masters has expanded its presence over the last decade by adding the Drive, Chip and Putt Finals and now the Augusta National Women’s Amateur is a subtle, kind of next-level marketing, yet it’s really something the club seems to have embraced as its duty.
“What’s been interesting and a cool pivot for them in recent years is to take advantage of their platform to do things that are exciting for the growth of the game,” Arnett said. “They’re not doing it for the health of those trying to sell more golf clubs, but really to create more excitement about the growth of the game. It’s kind of refreshing that it’s so understated.”
Moreover, the Masters as a competition puts golf in its most attractive light. Unlike the USGA, Augusta National doesn’t seem intent on pushing the world’s best golfers to their breaking point. Rather than test their resolve, it celebrates their art. Unlike viewing the bloodletting of a typical U.S. Open, watching the Masters with its reverberating barrage of birdies and eagles and roars is like watching a video game. It shows golf not as an impending nervous breakdown, but as a game you want to revel in.
“One of the many things they get right is that you can shoot 32 on that back nine on Sunday and win the golf tournament, and everybody’s tuned in for that,” Abeles said. “It isn’t attrition, it isn’t about can you hang on, it’s how can I move forward. It’s progressive, it’s fun.”
Of course, what’s tricky is how golf activates beyond its Masters appetizer. While the Masters is this great clarion call for the start of the golf season, as the golf industry does its best to piggy back on the enthusiasm around the tournament, it has to do so carefully. The Masters protects its brand, so promoting your products or tying your business directly to the Masters is like using the Olympics or NFL logo. Still, from golf bags to shoes, shirts to divot tools, there are scads of Masters-themed products, but none with the Masters logo, of course. Even the marketing message gets euphemistically blurry with phrases for Masters green-festooned products using words like “celebrates the year’s first major” or “2019 Season Opener,” or even the praying hands on Nike’s Masters-themed, green snakeprint shoes rolled out for this year’s tournament. Golf’s corporate world approaches the Masters with less shouting and fireworks, because like with its television broadcast, that’s what the club prefers. It can be even more hidden: Rickie Fowler's Masters scripting includes what appears to be an otherwise innocuous camo-print shirt until you look closely and notice the pattern depicts a map of the U.S. and an outline of the state of Georgia. The base of TaylorMade's Masters staff bag includes a string of three-digit numbers at the base: the yardages for all 18 holes at Augusta National. A Callaway headcover developed with Seamus Golf that becomes available April 12 features 18 flowers on it: each for the hole names at Augusta National.
“They are really protecting the purity of the competition, not trying to commercialize it,” Arnett said. “It’s refreshing, and, really, more effective in that it’s so understated.”
Still, while Augusta National and the Masters sets the stage for the industry, it also leaves the stage for the industry to build from once the champion puts on the green jacket. Yes, Augusta National works behind the scenes in various roles, but what golf writ large does with its Masters adrenaline is much more complicated than reading the wind on the 12th tee with a one-shot lead. With equipment sales, rounds played and the number of golfers stagnant for much of the last decade, the opportunity presented by a Masters springboard hasn’t always been fulfilled. ClubCorp’s Pillsbury believes there’s more opportunity to harness the Masters momentum than really has been acted upon.
“As an industry we’ve done a fairly poor job of converting this interest in the game—which I think has never been higher—to getting people out to play,” Pillsbury said. “This is the time where you need to proactively engage because you know everybody that owns a set of golf clubs is thinking about it.”
Pillsbury said ClubCorp is partnering with the PGA of America on a pilot program to seize on the interest that starts with the scenes of Magnolia Lane. The new program offers ClubCorp members a free game assessment, initiated by phone calls and other direct contact from a club’s teaching staff to members.
“The Masters absolutely activates the person who already plays the game,” he said. “But then there’s the person that we’ve done a poor job of converting, the millions of people that watch on television and are interested, and yet there’s too much friction in the game for them to go learn how to play. Breaking down that friction is what we’re very focused on.
“You can’t just be there waiting for the phone to ring. Because once golfers get engaged, you know what happens: they play. And the Masters is the catalyst.”
Given this love affair and its almost financial dependence on the event, it is remarkable and inconceivable that there was a time in the early days that Augusta National was foreclosed upon, that there were years it could not afford to produce a trophy for the winner of its Masters tournament, that the club’s founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts saw the tournament as crucial to keeping the club alive. Now, in its full vitality, it is almost as vital to the business of the entire game itself. Fact is, if the Masters didn’t exist, it seems a secret board of golf industry executives might very well have created it.
So while our sense of the Masters is how it sets a perfect stage for a perfect golf tournament with a thrilling finish on the back nine on Sunday afternoon, it’s larger effect might be just how well it sets the stage for Monday morning and beyond.