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At first glance, December 12, 2010, was a largely unremarkable date in golf history.

Dustin Johnson and Ian Poulter teamed up to win the Shark Shootout by two shots from Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell in Florida.

Pablo Martin held off Anthony Michael, Charl Schwartzel and Thorbjorn Olesen to win the Alfred Dunhill Championship.

Solheim Cup star Iben Tinning was enjoying her first day of retirement having won the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters 24 hours earlier.

Lee Westwood was sitting on top of the world rankings and most golfers had put their bags away for Christmas.

It was any other day. At first glance.

That night, the seventh series of UK TV behemoth The X Factor drew to a close. Matt Cardle pipped Rebecca Ferguson to the prize, with a group of five teenage boys finishing third. That group was One Direction and, within a year, it had become one of the biggest music acts on the planet, making household names of its stars: Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Zayn Malik and Niall Horan.

Mullingar-born Horan was only 15 when One Direction was formed. Almost overnight, he went from singing in local arts centres to performing in front of millions of people on sold-out arena tours. His face was plastered all over posters and billboards from Paris to Panama. One Direction set a record for the most subscribers for a band on YouTube and were the first group to debut at No.1 with their first four albums in the USA. They went supersonic and stratospheric all at once.

All the while, golf carried on in its own little bubble, completely oblivious to the impact this teenage popstar would soon have on the sport.

More on that shortly.

First, close your eyes nice and tight and try to picture a sports agent. What you’re seeing will likely vary depending on your age. For those of a particular vintage, it’s a profession that calls to mind fast-talking wide boys in the Eric Hall, ‘monster, monster’ mould. For others, it conjures images of Tom Cruise’s urbane but intense Jerry Maguire.

The reality is somewhat different. Most managers tend to fade into the background. They’re an almost ubiquitous presence on and around driving ranges but, if they do their jobs well enough, you probably won’t notice them.

That’s where Niall Horan is a bit different. It’s hard to blend into the background when you have a combined following of 73 million people on Instagram and Twitter. To put that into context, only 19 countries on the planet have a larger population. His audience is bigger than that of the world’s top-50 golfers combined. For every person that follows Tiger on Twitter, six follow Niall. It’s not easy to go unnoticed.

So, when he declared in 2015 that he was setting up his own golf management company, shortly after One Direction took a hiatus, the news was received with a predictable amount of eyebrow-raising and eye-rolling.

Horan’s love of golf was nothing new to anybody. He had become a regular fixture at events like the BMW PGA Championship – where he drew a crowd of 20,000 mostly teenage girls to Wentworth for the celebrity pro-am in May 2015 – and the Masters, where he caddied for Rory McIlroy in the Par-3 Tournament. When he wasn’t playing golf, he was talking about it on social media.

But a management company? An actual, tangible role within the sport’s ecosystem? Hardly anybody saw that coming.

“A lot of mates of mine were golfers and I was spending a lot of time around the tour socially,” he tells bunkered. “What I noticed pretty quickly was that a lot of young guys, particularly those just below the DP World Tour, didn’t know where they were going to playing the next week, or seemed a bit unsure about this, that or the other.

“I was just like, ‘I love golf and I’d love to see the next generation come through, be protected, and be supported.’ That’s where it began.”

Mark McDonnell, his business partner and co-founder of Modest! Golf, elaborates.

“I’ve worked in golf since I was 16 and, even when I was at university in Southampton, I knew I wanted a career in the sport,” he says. “TaylorMade’s offices were 40 minutes up the road from my uni so I asked if I could go in one day a week and sweep the floor and just kind of be immersed in the industry. After leaving university, they offered me a full-time position as an account executive.

“My degree was in management and so, whilst I loved the golf industry and I loved selling golf clubs, my dream, ultimately, was to manage individuals. I grew up with Justin Rose, so that gave me a taste for what it takes and what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to looking after a top athlete.”

It was around the time of Horan’s big break on The X Factor that McDonnell struck up a relationship with various people at Modest! Management.

Niall Horan golf
Niall Horan pictured at Callaway headquarters in Carlsbad, San Diego (Pic: Jason Guerrero / Cliff Endsley)

“They were purely in entertainment at that time and looked after the biggest acts from The X Factor: Alexandra Burke, Leona Lewis, One Direction, Olly Murs, Little Mix – all of them, basically. What I saw was this conveyor belt of young kids who were suddenly thrown into the limelight and started to earn a lot of money and have all kinds of distractions. There were media commitments, financial commitments, merchandise commitments. Lots of noise, basically, when all they wanted to do was sing and perform.

“What I loved about Modest! was how they stripped all that away, took care of everything and let their artists focus on what they were good at. In the case of Niall, he went for his audition at 15, got into the band and two days later, he was living in London. Basically, he went for his audition and never went home and here he is, 12 or 13 years later, still circling the globe.

“It’s an enormous responsibility for a management company to take on young people and help keep them on the straight and narrow.”

Horan and McDonnell struck up a friendship of their own, hanging out socially, playing golf, even going to the Masters together.

“We’d be talking about golf and Niall would be like, ‘Whatever happened to that amateur who turned pro and everybody said they were going to be the next big thing?’” McDonnell says. “We had that conversation quite a lot about several different players and a recurring theme kept coming up: bad choices.

“There’s a lot more that goes into turning pro than most people realise, particularly when you’re already a bit of a name. Around that time, the bigger agencies were signing up five or six players all at once and, undoubtedly, it becomes a question of who gets the resources, who gets the invites and so on.

“No disrespect to them whatsoever but we just felt that there was space for a boutique agency that worked with a smaller group of players and gave each individual full focus and support.”

Horan adds: “What we’re noticing in sport and music – and this has been going on for a while actually – is that everyone is so much younger nowadays. The best players in the world are starting to become really good, very early. So, it’s important to have good people around you from the start who have your best interests at heart. That’s what I had early on and still do. It’s very important.

“I imagine it’s a scary thing to turn pro. You’ve got the protection of your college, your national team, or whatever, and then suddenly you’re out in the big bad world and you’ve got to go around sussing out agents and stuff like that. Even though the range is a small place and you think you know everyone, I can’t imagine it’s very easy to make that decision. That’s what we set out to fix.”

Those conversations took place around a year before One Direction split. Fast-forward to August 2015 and McDonnell was in a car park in Northern Ireland when his phone rang.

“It was Niall’s music manager Harry Magee, the co-owner of Modest Management,” he says. “He said, ‘Niall really wants to develop interests away from music. Are you open to setting up a golf management business with him?’ I played hard to get for all of five seconds. It was a very easy ‘yes’.”

That’s when the hard work began and the cynics cleared their throats.

Horan with Modest! Golf client Ewen Ferguson (Pic: Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images)

Who are ya?

“FOR THE FIRST 12 TO 18 MONTHS, it was brutal,” McDonnell says. “I don’t think a lot of people took us seriously because all they saw was a guy from a successful band wanting to try his hand at golf. Some of them were really dismissive.”

What the naysayers did not, could not, or simply refused to see, was Horan’s genuine passion for the game.

Born in 1993, his earliest memories of sport are from the early-2000s when, as he puts it, “it was all about watching Tiger on a Sunday night. Plus we had [Darren] Clarke, [Paul] McGinley and [Padraig] Harrington smashing it at that time. And the thing about golf in Ireland, it’s everywhere you look.”

Horan’s grandmother lived next to a pitch-and-putt course and he would routinely jump the fence with a wedge and putter and spend countless hours there. Like so many young kids, he stopped playing in the middle years of high school before picking it back up again when he joined One Direction.

“Once the band got going and we were travelling the world, I brought the bats everywhere I went,” he laughs. “Honestly, they’ve been more places than my guitar.”

The passion was – and is – real.

“To this day, I still get people saying to me, ‘Is Niall really involved?’” McDonnell explains. “I mean, of course he is! Obviously, he can’t be at every single event and in every single meeting but throughout all the major decisions and moments in our company’s history, he’s been there.”

He cites the 2017 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews as an example of Horan’s involvement and influence.

“We signed Connor Syme when he turned pro after the Walker Cup and the Dunhill was one of his first events. Niall made a point of being there. Rory McIlroy was playing that week and Niall personally asked him if he’d play some holes with Connor. I mean, how’s that for a start to your career? A few holes with Rory McIlroy on the Old Course!

“If you were to ask Connor now, he’d probably tell you that’s about as nervous as he’s ever been but that was the whole point. If you can do that, there’s probably very little that’ll ever faze you. That was all down to Niall.

“This has never, ever been a pet project for him or a little plaything to occupy his time whilst he figured out what he wanted to do next. And to be honest, I felt like it did me a disservice when I heard people say that. I know there are celebrities out there who’ll put their name to something just to make a quick buck and I would never stake my own career on that. I knew Niall’s passion for golf was genuine, and that’s why it was really easy for me to want to get involved.”

“To be honest, I kind of expected the cynicism,” Horan adds. “There are agents on the range who have been there for a long time. They know the tour inside out and they’ve had their pick of the players for a long time. When they saw me turn up and try to get involved, they were bound to be a bit like, ‘Who’s he?’

“We heard bits and pieces here and there but that just gave us more drive – a healthy drive – to prove them wrong. Not in a ‘we’ll show them’ kind of a way. More, ‘we really want to do this’.”

Horan takes snaps with fans during the ISPS Handa World Invitational at Galgorm Castle in Ireland (Pic: Oisin Keniry / Getty Images)

Modest by name…

DAY ONE AT MODEST! GOLF HQ. First item on the agenda: what kind of management company do we want to be? That, as it turned out, was the easiest question of the lot.

“I wanted to keep it relatively small,” Horan says. “That’s always been really important to me. The biggest thing you hear from young players is, ‘I signed with this big agency, but I didn’t get enough support.’

“I’d hate for any of our players to turn around and say they weren’t feeling the love. So, straight away, I wanted to have one member of staff for every couple of players. On top of that, I wanted to go into the events side of things very early on because, not only does it get the name of the company out there, it also creates playing opportunities for our players.”

“We always said, right from the very start, that we wanted to be a golf agency with a difference,” McDonnell adds. “We saw ourselves as having a huge responsibility to girls because of Niall’s following. Let’s face it, if it wasn’t for the female population, Niall wouldn’t be where he is. So, we really felt women’s golf was something we wanted to support.

“We also wanted to have a charity element and bring some entertainment to that side of things. I mean, this was 2016, so still a little bit before hoodies were a thing and there was a growing sense that golf needed to get with the times. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we were the driving force behind that, but I do think Niall, in particular, played a big part in showing that golf wasn’t just for 60-year-old men in corduroys.”

That’s for certain.

In 2016, when Horan tweeted about Modest Golf’s partnership with the Northern Ireland Open and the Challenge Tour, European golf’s second tier started trending on social media in Los Angeles and Mexico City almost instantly.

The tour’s chief executive Alain de Soultrait reportedly flew to Mexico the very next day to explore the possibility of staging an event out there.

Horan’s mention of the Challenge Tour in that same tweet also earned the tour’s Twitter account almost 1,000 new followers overnight.

“I always say this but, you know, I’ve got 40 million Twitter followers and a few more on Instagram,” he adds. “If me posting about golf here and there makes just one per cent of my followers take an interest in golf, well, look, I’m no mathematician, but it’s a lot!

“Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of them will be like, ‘oh great, he’s talking about golf again!’ But I guarantee there’s quite a few who will read that tweet and go to the driving range, or go to Topgolf, or even just try to get involved in some shape or form. It’s just about letting them know the sport exists really. You never know how many will go, ‘Well, if Niall thinks it’s cool, it might be cool.’”

Horan and McDonnell waited a year until they signed the first player to Modest! Golf. That was no accident.

“We were determined we wouldn’t just run out there and sign the first people we could,” McDonnell says. “Instead, we tried to develop the company in other ways by looking at the corporate space, working with partners and so on, so that, when we were ready to go, we were absolutely ready to go.

“As an example, we got involved with the World Invitational very early on because an event gets you starts and, when we signed that first player, we knew we’d be able to give them somewhere to play.”

The first player to join the stable was Italian up-and-comer Guido Migliozzi.

“Everybody we spoke to about him told us what an unbelievable player he was,” McDonnell adds. “‘When he gets hot, he gets really hot’, that kind of thing. We were fortunate that we got on with him and his family and he gave us a chance.

“He took some time to find his way in the professional game but we were absolutely fine with that. We told him, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do in year one. You’re with us and we back you.’ Some guys come out and immediately start flying, like Ludvig Aberg. For others, it’s more of an adjustment. We recognised that’s what it would be for Guido and, well, his results speak for themselves.

“He’s gone from the Alps Tour, to the Challenge Tour, to getting his card for the DP World Tour at Q-School, to winning three times, to playing in the Masters, to finishing inside the top ten at the US Open, and there’s still so much more to come. He has proven that you can take the long road and get there and we’re proud to have been with him every step of the way.”

Migliozzi was domino one. Since then, Connor Syme and Ewen Ferguson have joined the team. So, too, the likes of Brendan Lawlor, Olivia Cowan, Leona Maguire and, more recently, Angel Yin and Anna Nordqvist. Securing Maguire, it must be noted, was particularly satisfying for Horan.

“I grew up watching the 6 o’clock RTE news and all I’d see was Leona and Lisa Maguire,” he laughs. “They were never off the telly, these two young ones who were winning absolutely everything in sight. Then, obviously, I heard they were going to Duke, Leona’s career started kicking on in particular, and I was like, ‘We just have to sign her.’ She was the world No.1 amateur, Irish; it was a no-brainer.

“There were maybe seven or eight other agencies interested in her. We went to Duke and sat down with her, her college, and it was a whole big thing. It looked at one point like we were going to miss out on her but we got there. It was amazing when we got that deal over the line.”

In 2019, Modest! Golf made arguably its biggest signing to date when it added Tyrrell Hatton.

“At the time, he was 49th in the world, so just hanging on to that top-50 spot,” McDonnell explains. “He’d had a couple of bad experiences and was looking for something new. Fortunately, he chose us and, since then, he’s worked really closely with Danny Wardrop, our Director of Golf, who has been such a pivotal part in growing our business and has been a key part of Tyrrell’s career for over ten years.

“Again, that’s not to say Tyrrell’s success is down to us. It’s not. It’s about having all the little ‘1% difference-makers’ firing on all cylinders because if they are, the sum of those parts will help you to be the best you can be.”

Less well known is the fact that the company has also turned down some players. It’s a boutique business, after all. Every spot counts.

“There are a few things we look for,” McDonnell explains. “Yes, you’ve got to have the ability. Talent comes before everything else. But it’s as important to us that you’ve got the right work ethic and have good people around you.

“We need to be able to critique and identify where things can be improved, so it’s important the players we work with are open to that feedback. Are you prepared to work hard? Are you ambitious? Do you want to get to the next level? It’s about a lot more than how well you hit the golf ball.”

L-R: Danny Wardrop, Tyrrell Hatton and Mark McDonnell.

The art of doing business

MODEST! GOLF IS NOW SEVEN YEARS OLD. It’s established, it’s successful and, crucially, it’s diversifying. Currently, it employs eight people, but you can expect that number to grow, not least because the company recently opened a US office.

In addition to managing a group of exciting and talented golfers, it continues to explore opportunities in the events space and has forged a great relationship with the R&A, with whom it has done great work on the campaign.

Horan has also joined Callaway Golf as a brand ambassador, there’s a new sports marketing business that sits adjacent to Modest’s core management interests – which has seen the company broker exciting, out-of-golf deals with the likes of footballer Trent Alexander-Arnold and boxer Anthony Joshua – whilst it continues to do extraordinary work for charity through ‘Horan & Rose’, a joint venture between Niall and former world No.1 Justin Rose.

“Rosey was probably the first person I met in golf,” Horan says. “I’ve played loads of golf with him and we’ve always got on very well. We just thought we’d be stupid not to try to put on a great evening and raise a lot of money, but not your average black-tie event, you know? We wanted to do something more fun and relaxed.

“We shocked ourselves when we raised over a million pounds the first time we did it. We immediately decided we would do it every two years rather than every year, so it kept some of its appeal and it’s really worked. We’ve raised more than £4million so far, which is amazing and hopefully it’ll keep going.”

Horan’s successful integration, or infiltration – call it what you will – into golf appears to have inspired other high-profile celebrities to do likewise. Gareth Bale, basketball superstar Steph Curry and the like.

“Six or seven years ago, golf looked the same as it had for many years,” Horan says. “The governing bodies had been run by the same people for a very long time and so on. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t easy to begin with. It was hard getting turned away from things pretty much constantly, but I always knew that if we stuck to it and worked hard then we’d get there in the end.

“Now, we’ve got a great relationship with all the governing bodies and all the agents, too.”

“You’ve got Gaz from Geordie Shore setting up his own golf clothing line,” McDonnell adds. “James Milner’s involved, too. There’s lots of different personalities, which is ultimately great for the game.

“I mean, a guy from Geordie Shore’s audience is completely different to Niall’s audience, which is different to Gareth Bale’s audience. You’ve got all these people talking about golf to a huge number of people. That’s massive.”

Horan agrees. “Slowly but surely, it’s turned around and people have started to realise, ‘Oh, wait a minute, maybe they are in it for the long haul.’ That, obviously, has made it easier for Gareth and people like that to get involved but I don’t think I’m particularly different from anybody else in the sense that I’ve got other passions in life beyond my actual job.”

Speaking of which, Horan is gearing up for a huge year in 2024 with a tour promoting his third solo album, ‘The Show’, set to start in Belfast in February. Seventy-six shows later, it’s scheduled to finish up at the O2 in London in September. As McDonnell frequently reminds him, “business never sleeps”. Fortunately, Horan has apps – lots and lots of apps – to help him keep tabs on his players.

“It’s nuts,” he laughs. “We’ve always got someone playing somewhere. The thing I ask from all our people on the ground is big updates. They’re all working in different parts of the world at any given time. Jack [Barber] will be off on the DP World Tour with the lads playing out there. Lisa [Maguire] does a great job with the girls. Danny [Wardrop] is with Tyrrell. Mark’s on the DP and Challenge Tours as well. So, it can all get quite ‘bitty’ if you let it. That’s why I ask them to keep me updated with big emails.

“I try to keep as involved as I can. When I’m in the States, it’s a bit harder. When I wake up in the morning at half past seven, it’s already half three in the UK. I try to knock out a few emails at that time just to keep in the loop with everything. But when I do have a day off, I’m able to get way more involved and I’ll be on the phone to people all day. All in all, I’m happy. We’re in a really good place.”

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This feature first appeared in issue 207 of bunkered (November 2023). To avoid missing out, take out a subscription. International subs also available.

bunkered issue 207

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Michael McEwan is the Deputy Editor of bunkered and has been part of the team since 2004. In that time, he has interviewed almost every major figure within the sport, from Jack Nicklaus, to Rory McIlroy, to Donald Trump. The host of the multi award-winning bunkered Podcast and a member of Balfron Golfing Society, Michael is the author of three books and is the 2023 PPA Scotland 'Writer of the Year' and 'Columnist of the Year'. Dislikes white belts, yellow balls and iron headcovers. Likes being drawn out of the media ballot to play Augusta National.

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