Niall Horan loves his golf and wants to see it's appeal broadened

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

As a global music superstar, you would not think that Niall Horan would have to wait on too many phone calls. But there was one that he admits was a long time coming – from the Royal & Ancient.

Horan, a former member of One Direction, one of the biggest selling boy bands in pop history, and now a popular solo artist, is perhaps not an obvious match for the R&A, renowned as one of sport’s stuffier institutions, but his passion for the game is not in question. He first fell in love with the sport as a six-year-old when he would climb over the fence of the pitch and putt course next to his grandmother’s house and by the time he was 12 he had joined his local club in Mullingar, paying €90 for the privilege.

Now, he is friends with Rory McIlroy – caddying for the Ulsterman at the Par Three contest at Augusta prior to the 2016 Masters – and the architect of the talent agency Modest! Golf, along with agent Mark McDonnell. Modest! Golf sees itself as a “disruptor” in the sport, representing established pros such as Tyrrell Hatton, female talents such as Ireland’s Leona Maguire and world top five disability golfer Brendan Lawlor, and has officially joined with the R&A “to get more young people into golf”.

This is no vanity project. Horan is hands-on with his clients, dealing with players day to day, and freely admits his name alone has been no guarantee of success.

“The industry probably thought ‘who is this fella coming in now – singer turned golf agent?’” he says with a laugh. “It wasn’t easy at the start. We were trying to convince players that we were the management group for them when others are seasoned pros at it and pitching for some of the best amateur golfers in the world.

“We were trying to do a lot of convincing. But slowly we started to get a bit of credibility. I felt we could do it but I had to balance my time with music and then it became half my life. Now it’s more of a full-time job.”

Horan is a good friend of Rory McIlroy and caddied for him in the Par-Three contest at The Masters

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Having established his agency, the 27-year-old is now setting his sights rather higher – on changing golf’s core audience and making it appeal to a mass market. The key, for Horan, lies in women – specifically young women, a subject on which he has a reasonable amount of experience, given One Direction’s fanbase consisted largely of teenage girls.

Selling pop songs to tweens is a different proposition to convincing them of the merits of reading a green, but there is logic to Horan’s business plan – not least because, with his combined social media following of around 60 million, he has a level of cut-through that even golf’s superstars such as Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and McIlroy cannot boast.

“Whatever young girls are into is usually doing quite well – whether it be fashion, sport or music,” he says, speaking over Zoom. “They are a powerful group historically and even more so now. I saw it with the band and now with my music – when girls get passionate about something they really give everything to it. You see it online – the younger generation pretty much run social media and corporates listen to them.

“That is why I feel we can try and get rid of the stigmas around golf with the help of young girls. If a small per cent of the 60 million people who follow me can pick up a golf club, we have half a chance.”

So what are the “stigmas” Horan perceives to be around the sport he loves? “I think it is different in Ireland but, in a lot of countries, golf is seen as a rich man’s sport and that even comes down to the clothing or the country club culture,” he says. “Stuff like the cost and accessibility of courses are also barriers.

“It is about letting people know it isn’t necessarily like that or if there is something we can change. There are multiple things that over a long period of time can change. The needle is never going to suddenly move. But I think girls are a very powerful part of starting that process.”

Horan has already held discussions with the R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers – he says he has been “taken aback” by the governing body’s level of engagement – but he knows their support alone will not be enough. In golf, more than most sports, money talks and Horan has prioritised getting corporate sponsors on board with his plans.

He singles out equipment retailer American Golf for praise – they were involved in sponsorship of the Rose Ladies Series last year – and believes firms like them can help change perceptions. “We can do our bit to change golf but we need people like that to put their money where their mouth is.”

Horan is trying to set an example. Modest! Golf  is running the ISPS HANDA World Invitational, with American Golf as commercial partner, which tees off in Northern Ireland in a fortnight and which will see men and women competing for equal prize pots of £1.08million.

“People say stuff like ‘women’s golf needs superstars’ but there are superstars in women’s golf – you have our client Leona Maguire, who finished tied 15th in the PGA Championship in her first season in the LPGA, and the Korda sisters – they are like the new Williams sisters. They just need to be shown off.”

Leona Maguire is represented by Horan's Modest! Golf agency

Credit: AP

Before he goes Horan is keen to challenge another of golf’s traditional stereotypes – fashion. He was taken by Hatton’s decision to wear a hoodie, rather than the traditional collared shirt or Pringle sweater, en route to winning last year’s BMW Championship at Wentworth, and believes moments such as that can be significant drivers of change.

“You think about the country club atmosphere and you think you can’t do this and you can’t do that – but Tyrrell won at Wentworth and he was wearing a hoodie. So over the mantelpiece in the Grill Room in Wentworth there is a picture of Tyrrell holding the trophy with a hoodie on. We just have to get these people to loosen up a bit.

“To be honest, I love some of the traditional parts of golf and I don’t want to change everything but some of the clothing can change to make it a bit cooler.

“I am only doing the bit that I can affect. I won’t be able to change the game the way Tiger Woods could but if a small percentage of the people that follow me do it, then maybe it will make a difference.”