Niall Horan is being touted as golf’s saviour and there is no doubt the Irish pop star is already performing a highly influential role in the sport.
Whether golf needs saving is open to debate because the game appears to be going through a renaissance at all levels. There is plenty of data to suggest it has grown in popularity amid the pandemic restrictions of the past 12 months.
But in Horan golf has an ideal ambassador to steer a more enlightened path and it is little wonder that the former One Direction star has been so enthusiastically embraced by the sport’s governing bodies.
Not so long ago, the notion of a stuffy old R&A jumping into bed with a boy band graduate to tap into an adoring army of 40m Twitter followers would have had the blazer brigade dismissively snorting into their G&T’s.
Thankfully, though, golf has moved on.
The St Andrews-based rules makers have partnered with Horan’s Modest! Golf Management company, an organisation that is also behind the ISPS Handa World Invitational event that was announced last week.
This ground-breaking project, which features separate men’s and women’s tournaments, each with fields of 144 players competing for equal prize money, is co-sanctioned by the men’s and women’s European Tours and LPGA.
It will be held in Northern Ireland this July, having originally been scheduled for last summer.
“This is the sort of thing that puts the game into the kind of place it should be,” Horan told BBC Sport at the initial launch.
The golf mad entertainer believes it is vital the sport continues to shed its stuffy image and does so with events that promote equality and inclusivity.
“It is a lot cooler sport than people make it out to be,” the 27-year-old singer said.
“All you have to do is look at the top 10 or 20 players in the world. They are all probably around my age.
“Things like this, men and women playing for equal prize money at the highest level on the main tours in Northern Ireland, this is the future.”
It is clear Horan would not be as heavily involved if he did not think the environment was there to make a difference.
“Golf over the last couple of years, worldwide, has really changed,” he told me.
“You look at people like Keith Pelley, who is running the European Tour, Mike Whan at the LPGA (and soon to take over as boss of the USGA). They’ve got more of a marketing head than would have been the case 20 years ago.”
Horan believes back then tournaments based on equal prize money would never have got off the ground. “We are now in a different place culturally, in society and sport is the place where you change culture and society,” he said.
“I hope I’m infectious,” he smiled, conveying a contagious enthusiasm; a much more acceptable kind of viral influence than we have been used to over the past year.
“I’m obsessed with golf, all types of golf. I will sit down in the States and watch college golf, women’s golf, disabled golf; I’ll watch anything. It’s like watching your local football team.
“They might not be the best but you still go because you love the game. It’s mad, I’m just crazy into it.”
Horan launched his golf management company in 2016 and his stable includes the UK’s leading player Tyrrell Hatton, who famously wore a hoodie while winning last year’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
Modest! Golf Management also has five times European Disabled Golf Association winner Brendan Lawlor on its books and has just signed 22-year-old American LPGA star Angel Yin.
They represent only 13 players, including young Italian Guido Migliozzi, Scots Connor Syme and Ewen Ferguson and Northern Ireland’s Leona Maguire. They all share youth and ambition as common traits.
“The players we’ve got are super exciting,” said Horan, who set up the company to help young players transition from amateur to professional ranks. “I always wanted us to be boutique. I want everyone to feel the love from within.”
But now the sphere of influence stretches further with this summer’s event jointly held at Galgorm Castle and Massereene golf clubs in County Antrim between 28 July and 1 August.
The tournament has potential to influence the evolution of professional golf in a society and business world where inclusivity and equality have become increasingly significant factors. No sport can afford to fall any further behind on that road.
This also explains why Horan has been successfully courted by the R&A. Their chief development officer, Phil Anderton, speaks of a shared ambition “for golf to be viewed as a fun, friendly and accessible sport that is inclusive of all people no matter their age, gender, ability or background”.
Horan says that if he can influence even a tiny number of his millions of social media followers to take up the game it would be a big success. That is probably a “modest” ambition for an ideal golfing ambassador for these times.
Horan can steer a direction for the game. As he told me: “It is a passion of mine. I love golf and sit at home watching TV, wanting to change the game. I’m lucky I have the vehicle to do something about it.”
What is more, it seems the people running the sport are recognising that fact.
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