From The HSBC Golf Business Forum in Shanghai
Andrew Cotter in conversation with the global head of golf for IMG, Guy Kinnings, and Rickie Fowler
ANDREW COTTER: Our next session will be equally interesting I’m sure, and sort of follows on from that, as well because we’ve heard from quite a few movers and shakers in various aspects of the golf industry.
But we’re going to hear now from one of the very best players in the game, will you please welcome to the stage, along with the global head of golf for IMG, Guy Kinnings, Rickie Fowler.
Was interested in how much of that chat you caught from Ari, but basically as I said, following on from what he said, that the youth of the game at the very top level, he’s excited by it and the fact that we have not just yourself, but Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and it can go on; that, yes, it is a big responsibility to try and fill the gap with Tiger ebbing away a little bit. But it’s exciting times, as well.
RICKIE FOWLER: Yeah, it’s a great time in golf right now. A lot of good, young players playing well. When you see the last three winners on the PGA Tour, all young guys. And then with the guys playing, the best in the game right now, Rory and Jordan, Jason, we’ve got a good future ahead. It’s going to be a lot of fun competing with these guys.
ANDREW COTTER: One of the things we want to investigate with this chat is we see the life of the professional just in the tournament window. So we see you playing golf and might see you hitting balls in the practise grounds. But there’s far more to being a top player than that.
What does your life involve? It’s a very big question but there are plenty of other roles in your life week‑to‑week and day‑to‑day just from playing golf.
RICKIE FOWLER: There are. Obviously come to the tournaments, we want to be prepared and ready to go play. But it’s also fun being able to do some of the other things that go along with professional golf: From being involved with our partners and sponsors and the photo shoots that may go along with it or commercial shoots, to being involved with charities alongside them to doing charity events with other players and helping out with that. I just did Jordan’s charity event for his foundation last Tuesday.
So we’re travelling quite a bit but it’s fun. It’s all part of it. Ari was talking about the game is in such a great position with the young guys playing well. But also with us being able to give back and help each other out, I’m excited. I just played Jordan’s event, and I was able to play The Irish Open last year that benefitted Rory’s foundation.
So it’s fun to be able to work together and help grow the game but also be able to give back.
ANDREW COTTER: Guy, it’s the entertainment business, because otherwise, it’s just professional golfers hitting balls with no money and nobody watching. So players, they have to be aware of their responsibility and that there are fans out there and the fans are probably quite important.
GUY KINNINGS: For any of us involved in the game, the magic is what these guys bring to it. Without the stars, the shot window, the showcase of the game, that’s everything that drives interest levels at tournaments, viewership, bringing people to the game. All of us can run around trying to do our clever bits, but, in fact, without the sort of superstars that they can aspire to, without the sponsors that can help create something around it, the rest of it is just kind of, you know, shuffling the deck shares.
So for us we are lucky. You kind of look at, we’ve worked in the golf business when Tiger arrived. We had superstars before then. We’ve been through what was extraordinary, the Tiger era and he changed the game for everyone. But what we are now encountering with this generation of guys, who not only play to an astonishing level, but do have this responsibility and do provide something that is unique; to be social media savvy, to put back into the tournaments.
Also for us, and we listen to the networks, they want either a single dominant player or they want real rivalries and there are going to be unbelievable rivalries with the way these guys are playing. They all seem to get on tremendously well. Rickie just said he played in Ireland and supported the other guys. They all do.
But you know what, they are out there on the course and you’re watching the rivalries and the competition; that is what will drive the passion and drink people to the game.
ANDREW COTTER: Did you get when you were coming up and playing good amateur golf or Walker Cup, just on the cusp of becoming a professional, did you get that there was going to be more to it than playing golf; that it is about selling yourself and selling the game, as well?
RICKIE FOWLER: Yeah, my original dream as a little kid was just to play on the PGA Tour. But over time, learned that there was a lot more that went along with it and wanting to be one of the best players in the world or the best player in the world. It’s not just about playing golf.
There is that bit of responsibility, and being a leader or a role model out there, having a chance to help grow the game, to be able to give back; I don’t think it’s ‑‑ you have the opportunity to be able to give back. It’s more of a responsibility, I was talking about that; that’s part of it. You need to do that, and it’s fun being able to do it with the other guys in the game and have this friendship that we do. But on the golf course, we all want to beat each other up as bad as possible.
ANDREW COTTER: Social media is massive, obviously, and you’re a big player on social media, as well. So, again, is that something you enjoy doing, because you know it’s quite ‑‑ not an easy way of meeting fans, but it’s a fun way of meeting fans.
RICKIE FOWLER: Yeah, social media over the past few years has opened up a whole new avenue for us to connect with fans and for fans are able to see what’s going on day‑to‑day inside and outsides the ropes, whether it’s in golf or other sports or celebrities’ lives or whatever it may be. We are able to kind of, I guess, regulate or kind of show what we want or not show.
So if it’s handled correctly and properly, it’s definitely a huge benefit and can do a lot for someone as an athlete or celebrity. There’s a lot of good that can come from it, like I said, if you do it properly.
ANDREW COTTER: Has to be, I presume, quite a regimented, structured lifestyle, as well, though, because there’s so many demands on your time. You’re here just now; you’ll be off across to the Peninsula Hotel; you’ll be off to the course and doing various things. So in tandem with IMG, you’ll sort things out. But I suppose you have to be, not quite ruthless, but say, okay, that’s for practising, that’s for playing; on Monday I’m doing this, Tuesday I’m doing that, a very structured lifestyle.
RICKIE FOWLER: It’s structured at times. I mean, we’re still normal people. We like to have some fun and enjoy some free time when it’s right.
But yeah, I probably ‑‑ if I wasn’t doing some stuff here today and helping out with the tournament and being partnered up with HSBC, I may not have come in when I did. But having the opportunity to come do this today and come do some stuff in Shanghai; I flew in Sunday night and was able to get some practise done yesterday and see the course.
But there’s very much time management when it comes to making sure that you’re ready to play come Thursday week‑in and week‑out, and that goes with the off‑weeks, as well, how you manage your time during the week or on those off‑weeks can have a huge impact on how you play.
ANDREW COTTER: Guy, can you explain about the role of a good manager, I suppose first and foremost you’ll get young players coming to you, as we’ve touched upon, Rickie, who might think it’s all about golf and you say, no, no, there’s far more to it than that. It’s about educating players when they start their professional careers, as well.
GUY KINNINGS: I think it all evolves. Rickie got it right when he said when he can heck they want to play, they want the opportunity to play and they want to get out there and do that. And any of us who are working in the business, Rickie’s team, ourselves, whoever is doing that, all you’re thinking about is how do you give the people a chance, how do you give them a chance to go play in tournaments.
Once they have started doing that and once they progress and then have the confidence to be able to compete day‑in, day‑out, whatever the tour is ‑‑ and there are now opportunities the world over. It’s the chance to get on the bottom rung; and the goal is maybe to get to the top of the PGA Tour or European Tour but people can now progress from whatever it is in the world. And as it evolves, then the priorities change, and there becomes an awareness of what you can do.
Rickie is a fantastic example of that, and there are a lot of other guys who have a sense of the fact that they are building a brand; that they can do more than just simply compete at the highest level. Nothing will replace performance. At the end of the day, these guys are defined by how they play and they will focus. And I’m sure Rickie will have done his work, as the other guys will have done to be prepared properly; so they can also come and do stuff like this, which is fantastic.
For those of us in the business, if they didn’t come and do this, meet us halfway, help us with it, we would struggle in what we do in terms of bringing sponsors in. But it’s a balance between performance on the course, and then also adding some value.
There’s no doubt that brands will look at fantastic players and they will go: Which am I most drawn to? They are both brilliant; this guy puts stuff back in; he has a social media footprint; he’s great with sponsors; he’s prepared to travel the globe. We are in Shanghai; the fact that the best players in the world, end of a long season, pretty tired, they have done, whatever, Presidents Cup, FedEx, they have come here to Shanghai, which has changed the way the game is seen without any doubt at all. This tournament, HSBC support the star players, have changed the way the game is seen and brought people in at the bottom level, junior programmes inspired by their heros.
ANDREW COTTER: Talking about fan engagement on social media, but in the personal fan engagement, I remember Andy Murray in tennis talking about how when he was a youngster going to tennis tournaments and waiting for Andre Agassi’s signature and he couldn’t get it. So he makes sure that he signs everything now.
I know that’s difficult for players to do, but I know that you and a lot of players have realised how important it is to all the fans; that just a little look, a signature, a wave, a high five is everything to them.
RICKIE FOWLER: Yeah, just something little can go so far. I remember being at sporting events growing up whether it was golf or something else, but even just a little acknowledgment went a long way.
It’s really cool to be in a position now where I have a lot of young fans and get to sign autographs afterwards. Just to be able to do that and you have a chance of really having a huge impact and could be for a split second; but I don’t know, I’ve never really thought of all that when I dreamed of playing on the PGA Tour. That was something, like Guy was talking about, stuff evolves and you learn about what comes along with it, some of the responsibilities and some of the things that you do get to do.
But we wouldn’t be in this position if we didn’t have the sponsors. It’s a partnership. We work together, and like he was saying, we take care of our stuff through regular play on Thursday, but we do this stuff to work together to give us the opportunity to be able to play on Thursday. So it’s teamwork.
ANDREW COTTER: What are the harder aspects of Tour life? Again, not many in here feeling massively sorry for you, but that’s something we don’t see. We just see the glamorous side, oh, he’s playing golf for a living, that’s great. There’s far more to it; the travel. What’s the hardest aspect that you find?
RICKIE FOWLER: Well, teeing it up on Thursday, that’s when we kind of get to relax and just go have fun. Yeah, we do travel a lot. Not too long ago, I was just over in Korea for the Presidents Cup. I went to Japan for two days. Went and did some stuff for PUMA and Cobra over there. I flew to L.A. for two days. Went to Vegas, did some outings, charity event; played a tournament there. Then flew to Dallas to go do Jordan’s event, which all this, it’s fun, but it takes up time and it is tough with the amount of travel it is. Went back to L.A. for a couple days and we’re in Shanghai.
Luckily I enjoy travelling. I love seeing the world. I guess if I didn’t enjoy that, this would be pretty tough.
ANDREW COTTER: You’ve played here, you’ve played in Abu Dhabi, you mentioned the various places you play around the world, a global player. I don’t think there used to be quite so many, but you’re certainly one who enjoys that aspect of seeing the world, even if it is just small corners of it.
RICKIE FOWLER: Yeah, luckily I’m in the position where I get to go play the best tournaments around the world and have the opportunity to go play Abu Dhabi last year with HSBC and had a great time there. It’s been fun to be able to go play tournaments in places where I’ve just thought about being able to go visit and then get to play golf on top of it.
ANDREW COTTER: Tim Finchem was here, and his eyes were sparkling at the mention of you and McIlroy and Spieth and Jason Day, because when Tiger Woods initially suffered a setback, the viewing figures dropped 30 per cent and he said now they are back up 20 per cent.
I’m not sure you feel a responsibility, but again, these are quite exciting times, and Ari was touching on it’s a younger band of players coming through, as well, which can only help as you’re trying to attract youngsters into the game.
RICKIE FOWLER: Jason is the oldest of the four guys.
ANDREW COTTER: He’s very, very old.
RICKIE FOWLER: Yeah, he’s getting up there. Is he 28?
ANDREW COTTER: 28? I don’t know if he’s still playing (laughter).
RICKIE FOWLER: Then there’s Jordan.
ANDREW COTTER: Jordan’s 15.
RICKIE FOWLER: He’s the kid (laughter). I think people are starting to see that, yeah, we are some of the best players in the world, but also, that we have a chance of being those guys for 15, 20 years to come. Maybe not Jason, he’s a little older still.
But no, the game is in a great spot and you look at all the younger guys that are playing well and winning, guys that just won their first PGA Tour events, Justin Thomas winning last week, it’s fun to watch. I’m enjoying watching my friends play well. It motivates me. And we’re just kind of pushing each other to the next level.
ANDREW COTTER: I imagine how easy it would be to sell someone like Rickie to various sponsors, established contracts and the fashion that youngsters are into. But I suppose you’re trying to market a player, you need them to have something about them.
GUY KINNINGS: We have to remember, it’s a competitive market. People are out there, every sport, every discipline is trying to grab sponsorship money. If you were to ask Giles at HSBC how many sponsorship proposals he gets a year, it is literally ‑‑ I think it is 10,000. There is competition.
And as we are saying, golf is in pretty robust shape, top end of the professional game, we are very lucky to have these guys doing what they are doing. But we have to remember that sponsors have a choice; and therefore, the players make themselves more appealing in different ways.
Rickie has been fantastic at that and done it at the outset and made himself appealing by standing out from the crowd and offering something different and inspiring the kids. I mean, how many kids run around wearing orange and the hat that I could never possibly be seen wearing but he makes look great. That is a sign of understanding a value.
And as Rickie says, whether that was him doing it consciously, or whether it just came as part of what he was doing, people talk about brands. You know, someone’s building a brand, and of course, people can build brands. They can do things to make themselves appeal, but an awful lot of it just comes from being true to what they are. If you do, when you’re finished, and it doesn’t matter if it’s 66 or 76, when you line up and sign a load of autographs for kids, those are instant fans. They go away inspired. You build your brand with those people.
Now, for sure, it helps if you play great and you look good when you’re doing it but all of the players help themselves in different ways to appeal in different markets and as we said, we’re lucky, the sport of golf brings in a very broad mix of companies that are interested and are drawn to it because it’s a great demographic.
And what these guys do on a Wednesday in a Pro‑Am is unique to golf. You can’t go driving against Lewis Hamilton. You can’t knock up Novak Djokovic, I heard Giles say, you sure can’t go play rugby with any of those guys. But because of the handicap system, someone tomorrow gets to play with Rickie and compete against him, and he can be as bad as I am. He can be an upper‑teen handicap maybe, but it is possible. That’s the unique value that you have for golf.
ANDREW COTTER: It’s interesting, because again as a youngster, you played golf for fun as we all did as youngsters and it’s just great fun playing the game but then you become, essentially you’re a business, as well.
But is it still at the same time, fun? Is it the competing that’s still fun?
RICKIE FOWLER: I really enjoy every aspect. When I go home, I still just go tee it up and play with friends. I just love to play golf. I love the game. When there’s more competition involved, the more fun it gets. And there’s ways of making it fun at home, playing for lunch or pride.
No, I love the game. I’ve loved the game since I started playing. We were saying earlier, Guy was saying, it’s so unique that we get to play these Pro‑Ams and play on the same course with people where you can’t go play basketball with a professional team. You can’t go try and play some rugby and tackle someone. Might not work out so well.
But we can go and play the same golf course, same conditions. Scores may not be the same but we may have ‑‑ we’ll give you a 4 handicap, we’ll give you a few a side but we’ll have a match and we’ll play a game together.
ANDREW COTTER: A 4 handicap a hole for Guy. (Laughter) we’re talking about here in the great triumvirate, Palmer, Player and Nicklaus, and they had their independent families I suppose and didn’t readily hang out together. Do you get a chance to hang out with Rory and Jordan and Jason?
Rickie Fowler: Yeah, we get to hang out quite a bit on the road or at home. Rory and I live by each other, so we’ll play and practise once in awhile when we’re in Jupiter together. Like I mentioned, I went to play Jordan’s event last week on Tuesday, and then I texted him before I went out there and said, hey, you want to play on Wednesday. Stayed the next day, and we went and played golf with a couple buddies. We enjoy being around each other, whether it’s playing golf or grabbing dinner at a tournament.
I guess it is a bit different. Some guys may not have hung around those top players in the world at the time. I feel like we’re going to be able to do a lot of cool things together now.
ANDREW COTTER: Just tell us a little bit about playing golf in this particular part of the world, as well. I suppose every golf crowd in each country you travel to has a slightly different feel to it. What’s it like playing over here?
RICKIE FOWLER: I think what’s been really cool about over here is seeing the growth over the past few years. I think this is my fourth trip, and since the first time I came, the size of the crowds, the interaction and how interested the people are; so I’m excited to see what it’s like this week to see the growth from last year.
And to be able to be involved with HSBC and to be here ‑‑ I got to go run around. I did a couple things with a couple junior golfers this morning. It’s fun to see the excitement and growth of the game. Hopefully we can keep doing that.
ANDREW COTTER: There have always been golfers in the past who have naturally drifted towards the business side of things. I think of Greg Norman, very successful and Arnold Palmer himself. Can you see yourself sort of building your own brand or perhaps going into other avenues somewhere down the line?
RICKIE FOWLER: Yeah, I think that’s part of the transition involving ‑‑ like we were talking about earlier, you learn as you go. And if I have the opportunity to continue to play well, that’s going to open so many doors for myself TO BE able to do different things. I’ve just got to keep making birdies and we’ll figure things out from there.
ANDREW COTTER: And eagles maybe, occasionally.
RICKIE FOWLER: Those help out. Those are a bonus.
ANDREW COTTER: And Guy, on the same topic, I suppose, are you in constant dialogue with your players, occasionally saying, okay, this might be an avenue for you to explore in the future whether it’s golf course design or whether it’s clothing or whatever, but it would always be the golfing side of things so perhaps other things to look at.
GUY KINNINGS: If you think about how some of the players that you just mentioned have developed businesses; and the fact that last year, an 85‑year‑old guy was in the top five of highest earning athletes in the world, only golf could produce that, Arnold Palmer ‑‑
ANDREW COTTER: Sounded liked Jason Day for a moment.
GUY KINNINGS: No, no, he’s slightly younger. But the Arnold Palmer example is a fantastic one.
And you mentioned, Greg Norman, a brilliant businessman, worked with him and he built that whole brand the Great White Shark. But it was Arnold who started it, and he was incredibly popular. You look, you do remember Arnold’s achievements. But you don’t remember him just for that. You remember the fact of the likability that he brought to the game and that he travelled the world. And he is now involved in an extraordinary business.
He does what all of these guys would dream of doing, which is earn while you sleep. And that Arnie does not have to travel far from the bar at Bay Hill; during the year, that’s what he gets to do. Yet he has a licensing business across Asia that generates huge sums for him. He’s got that model right.
And again, I think that’s ‑‑ I’m not saying he set out specifically with that goal but appreciating the appeal that he had, travelling the globe, engaging the people internationally and seeing him bring the game to them has opened up those opportunities. We have seen others do it, but for sure, Rickie gets it, other guys in that generation, they understand the value of travelling around the world.
None of us kid ourselves: It would be pretty easy, for these guys do incredibly well and they work hard all year and yet they are still prepared. You just mentioned the countries he travelled to and where some of the other guys have travelled to in this generation; they are responsible and they take the game around the world.
And for those of us who are trying to keep revenues coming into the sport of golf, we rely on them to do that. Because you can only speak to sponsors, build junior programmes, do whatever else it may be, building of golf courses this, that and the other. If there is that interest that’s being inspired by the stars; and they have to travel to really make that happen; and then, they will reap the rewards. They will build a business from there.
ANDREW COTTER: Golf course design, something you’d like to go into eventually?
RICKIE FOWLER: I’d love to. Like I said, keep playing well, and I haven’t done anything yet, but would love to do that.
ANDREW COTTER: Just one final question. Chances for this week? I know a lot of people in here are massive gamblers and would like a tip. Are you in pretty good shape?
RICKIE FOWLER: Yeah, I played well in Vegas. I just made too many mistakes. The swing’s good. Making a lot of birdies. I finished third here last year. Be nice to get back into contention to see if we can do a little bit better than we did.
ANDREW COTTER: Ladies and gentlemen, Guy Kinnings and Rickie Fowler.
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