It’s a bitterly cold and grey September’s morning in St Andrews where a crowd is following Rory McIlroy as he finishes a practice round on the Old Course.
Nothing unusual about that, of course. A former world No.1 and four-time major winner playing in the cradle of the game? The day that fails to draw a crowd is the day to check the thermostat in hell.
The thing is, a significant proportion of today’s crowd isn’t there to watch Rory. Rather, they’ve got their eyes trained on somebody else. A young guy of a similar size and build to McIlroy but who is casually wandering around the famous links under a grey baseball cap and navy jumper, which has a small Ryder Cup logo embroidered on it.
To the untrained eye, he could be anybody. A member of McIlroy’s entourage; a casual bystander; a member of the tour’s staff; perhaps even a reporter.
The trained eye, however, knows fine well who he is. He’s Niall Horan, formerly one-fifth of all-conquering boyband One Direction and one of the most famous young faces in the world.
Now, before anybody screams ‘exaggeration’, consider the facts. Hailing from Mullingar, in County Westmeath, 24-year-old Horan has sold more than 70 million records, achieved 100-plus number one hit singles around the globe, and performed to over 10 million fans worldwide.
His social media accounts give a fascinating insight into his near-universal popularity. On Twitter, he has 38.7 million followers. That’s more than six times as many as Tiger Woods, the most followed golfer on the platform, and comfortably more than the official accounts of NASA, the NBA and Real Madrid FC.
If his Instagram account was a country, it would be the 59th biggest country in the world, with a population more than four times that of Scotland and greater, too, than the likes of Chile, Kazakhstan, Greece, Belgium and the Netherlands.
His Facebook fanbase, meantime, would fill Wembley Stadium more than 110 times over.
He is, to put not too fine a point on it, kind of a big deal.
Yet on this particular day – this chilly, breezy, dank day – he is on the east coast of Scotland watching professional golfers play a practice round ahead of the 2017 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
McIlroy and Horan have long been friends. From playing golf together in Dubai to cheering on their fellow Irishman and UFC champ Conor McGregor in Las Vegas, the pair get on famously well.
Still, in much the same way as many in the crowd this morning aren’t there to watch McIlroy, neither, it’s fair to say, is Horan. Instead, he’s keeping tabs on young Scottish pro Connor Syme. The Alfred Dunhill Links marks Syme’s second start as a professional golfer and, with it taking place just 15 minutes from his Drumoig home, there’s a huge amount of interest in the 22-year-old. It’s for that reason that Horan has jetted in to Scotland. Forty-eight hours earlier, he was performing to tens of thousands of people at a festival in Rio de Janeiro. Today, though, he’s shivering with the rest of us in St Andrews and making sure Syme is as prepared as possible for his home debut. And well he might. He is Syme’s manager, after all.
Confused? Don’t be. When One Direction went on an indeterminate hiatus at the end of 2015, all four remaining members of the band were free to pursue their other interests for the first time being formed on The X Factor five years earlier.
For Horan, embarking on a solo music career was as obvious as it was inevitable. Entirely less predictable was his decision to launch his own golf management company.
Modest! Golf Management is essentially an extension of the same firm that represented One Direction. A keen golfer – he plays off 12 – Horan had spent enough time around the game’s professional tours and ‘seeing them from the inside’ through his friendship with the likes of McIlroy and Justin Rose to identify that there was a gap in the market for a new management company.
“We’re in this to grow the game, change the game and, specifically, change the way that golfers have been managed,” he tells bunkered. “You hear a lot of players who have been ill-managed or had some complaints about this or that and that just made me think. I thought ‘why not create a management company that’s trying to do something different?’”
He explained his vision to long-time friend Mark McDonnell, a former account manager for the likes of Srixon and TaylorMade. Mark immediately bought into the idea and agreed to join Horan in running the fledgling company.
“Niall always says that, whether you’re selling arenas or just starting out, every artist deserves to be treated the same,” adds McDonnell. “That’s the kind of culture that he wanted to create and I couldn’t wait to be a part of it.”
Ian Watts, the former Director of Sports Marketing at TaylorMade, pictured below (middle) flanked by Horan and McDonnell, joined soon after. “Ian’s been involved in golf for over 25 years,” says Horan. “It sometimes seems like he’s the best-known man in golf. Everywhere we go, people are like, ‘Alright Ian, how’s it going?’ He signed some of the biggest names in golf to equipment deals. Guys like Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els. So, he brings a real amount of experience to the table. Him and Mark, I couldn’t do this without them.”
Modest! Golf Management was unveiled in February 2016 and, that August, signed its first player, Italian youngster Guido Migliozzi. It was a move that surprised some people who had expected so-called ‘bigger’ names to join the firm.
“It was important to us that we establish ourselves as a company first of all,” explains Horan. “You know, we’re a young company and, whilst we’ve got a lot of experience and loads to offer, we’re new to all of this, so it makes sense that we represent young players, new to the professional game, and bring them with us on this journey.”
McDonnell adds: “We’re trying to make our growth as organic as possible. Every player we sign has to have a credible amateur record but we’re happy to do baby-steps. We have no aspirations to be an IMG, for example. We’re perfectly happy to be a boutique company and have no more than, say, 12 players on our books at any one time. Obviously, we’ll always be putting the feelers out there but if a year goes past and we don’t sign anyone, we won’t worry about it. We owe it to the boys to develop our company properly.”
Still, there can be no denying the value of Horan’s association. Just ask the Challenge Tour. As well as managing young golfers, Modest! has also supported the NI Open on Europe’s second-tier circuit since 2016. More than 43,000 people turned out to watch last year’s event. That’s more than attend some full European Tour events.
When Horan first tweeted about the partnership with the tournament, ‘@’-mentioning the Challenge Tour account, two things happened: one, the tour’s Twitter account gained almost 1,000 new followers overnight; two, the Challenge Tour almost immediately began trending in Los Angeles and Mexico City. The reaction was so big, so unexpected and so unprecedented that the tour’s chief executive flew to Mexico the following day to explore the possibility of establishing an event out there – all off the back of one tweet by one guy.
Be under no illusions, though. Modest! Golf isn’t a vanity exercise. Far from it. “Our focus is our players,” insists Horan. “That’s who we need to concentrate on. This isn’t about me or anybody else. This is about the boys. This is their time, their careers and we’re there to support them as best we can.”
Despite his busy schedule, Horan makes sure that he is fully involved in every aspect of his firm’s business.
“Niall’s involved in every decision we make and every aspect of the business management,” explains Watts. “Sure, he has to do a lot of his work by phone or by email but just because he’s not there in person doesn’t mean he’s not part of the discussions. It’s the total opposite. He’s very hands-on and wants this to be a huge success. He’s absolutely not in this just so he can say he owns a management company or is involved in golf. Every single contract that passes our desk, he looks at it as closely as the rest of us.”
“What you’ve got to remember is that Niall has been looking at contracts – big contracts, at that – since he was 16-years-old,” adds McDonnell. “How many other 16-year-olds can say that? He broke through on The X Factor and had to sign a deal when he made it through to the live shows with the band, and everything went quickly from there.
“He knows what it’s like to be that young person, looking at contracts and having to learn on the job. That kind of experience is invaluable. I mean, Ian’s worked in the industry for 25 years and I’ve been in it for the last ten but even with that all that experience, we can’t honestly say we can completely relate to the young players we represent in terms of knowing exactly how it is for them. How can you unless you’ve lived it? That’s where Niall comes in. All the players we’ve got can call him up or drop him a message and just bounce off ideas or experiences or ask for a bit of advice based on his first-hand knowledge of being in their shoes.
“Clearly, he can’t be at every golf tournament every week but just because he isn’t there in person doesn’t mean he’s unavailable. He’s always at the other end of the phone if any of our players want to talk to him about anything.”
Horan nods along. “We have a WhatsApp group with all the boys and we talk pretty much every day,” he adds. “Like the boys say, I’ve got a bit of a background with corporate dealings and so on from over the years, so I try to help them out as much as possible. But Mark and Ian are the guys running the show ‘on the ground’. From the minute they wake up in the morning until the minute they go to bed, they’re hard at it.”
The passion Horan, McDonnell and Watts all have for the job is palpable and genuine. They believe that the game has changed and they’re determined to play a part in developing the next generation of professionals.
“The guys that are coming through now are not just golfers,” says McDonnell. “They’re athletes and, for the most part, businessmen in their own right. It seems to us that they’re looking for something different from what traditional management companies are offering and we feel that, between the three of us, we can offer them the perfect mix of youth and experience. We think we tick a lot of boxes and that has been proven by the calibre of players we’ve been able to sign.
“For us, it’s all about the two ‘A’s: ability and attitude. It’s not just about where you are on the World Amateur Golf Ranking. We really delve into players’ backgrounds, what makes them tick and we ask a lot of people a lot of questions about them, just so we know what they’re like and if they fit the bill to be a Modest! player.”
A Modest! player – what exactly is that? According to McDonnell, Connor Syme, pictured above, is the living embodiment.
“He’s an honest, dedicated individual, has got loads of talent, works extremely hard, comes from a fantastic family – he’s got the lot,” he says. “For us, it’s not just about what you score and how low you’re capable of going. We take a much bigger view than that, from which we evaluate how we can develop those players and make a positive difference so that they can have long and successful careers.”
Horan adds: “I love the idea – and I’m sure the boys would agree – of seeing somebody like Connor win a major championship and us having been there to support him from day one. That would be pretty cool. There’s a long way to go but to be there, to have been a part of it and to, hopefully, have done a good job for him, that would be amazing.”
At this point, Sam Torrance ambles up. “Manager in golf now, eh? Bloody hell. What’s next? You’re like Don King!”
With that, it’s back out into the bracing cold of St Andrews’ in autumn and a succession of autographs to sign and selfies to pose for. Don King, it’s reasonable to assume, never had to deal with this.
• This feature first appeared in issue 162 of bunkered, published in March 2018.