Yesterday afternoon, as Justin Thomas was preparing to close out his first major victory, Frenchman Robin Sciot-Siegrist was winning the Northern Ireland Open.
Watching him do it was Niall Horan, one-fifth of all-conquering boy band One Direction and arguably the biggest thing to happen to golf since Tiger Woods.
Yeah, that’s right. You read correctly.
Golf-obsessed Niall is only 23, reportedly plays off a single figure handicap and, with his band on an indeterminate hiatus, he has juggled pursuing a solo music career with a foray into the golf industry.
In February last year, it was reported that he was launching his own golf management company, Modest! Golf. Within months, the company partnered with the Northern Ireland Open, a relatively recent addition to the Challenge Tour schedule. With Horan in attendance, over 39,000 people flocked to Galgorm Castle GC in Ballymena for the event.
That’s a bigger crowd than many full European Tour events command.
Horan’s popularity is his currency. He has 32.3million Twitter followers. That’s more than five times as many as Tiger Woods, the most followed golfer on the social media platform. You could pool the followers from the ten most followed golfers on Twitter and still not get more than two-thirds of the way to emulating Niall – and that’s not accounting for duplicate followers.
On Instagram, he has nearly 20million followers. A picture he uploaded from the Northern Ireland Open Pro-Am last week has already been liked by almost 600,000 people.
His Facebook page has more than 10million followers.
He is, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of a big deal. And he’s potentially huge for golf. In fact, he’s everything the game needs right now.
When Horan tweeted last year about Modest! Golf’s partnership with the Northern Ireland Open and the Challenge Tour, European golf’s second tier circuit almost immediately began trending in Los Angeles and Mexico City. A sourse close to the tour told me that its chief executive Alain de Soultrait flew to Mexico the following day to explore the possibility of establishing an event out there.
Horan’s mention of the Challenge Tour in that same tweet also earned he tour's Twitter account almost 1,000 new followers overnight.
That’s called ‘star power’. It’s a transcendent force and is making more people – more young girls, in particular – pay attention to golf for the first time. You don’t have to like Horan’s band or his music to accept that.
I witnessed its impact close-up at last year’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. Almost 20,000 people turned up that day (teenage girls accounting for a significant proportion of them) to catch a glimpse of the young singer. It mattered not why they were there; only that they were.
Almost single-handedly, Horan has attracted more young girls to a golf course than any cute, hashtag-driven marketing campaign ever has.
I stood next to the second tee as he came through. Suffice to say, I was surrounded by teenage girls. But here’s the crucial point. In addition to the swooning ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhs’, I also heard a few of them talking about golf. One was even overheard to say, “I reckon I could do that”.
It doesn’t matter whether or not the girl in question backed up her confident quip with a trip to the driving range or her local PGA pro. What matters is that she even considered it. Would she have done that but for Horan? I’d doubt it.
Directly or indirectly, he’s bringing golf to an audience it is desperate to reach. If he says something's cool, there's an army of followers ready to agree with him, no questions asked.
Can you imagine how other sports must envy that? Let’s wear that shoe on the other foot for a second. What if Horan was generating all of this attention for the likes of cycling, rugby league or cricket? How jealous would golf’s main administrators be inclined to feel? That's why the game needs to embrace him and find him a bigger role.
What a week! Congrats to everyone involved in the Northern Ireland open 2017 @GalgormCastle . Congrats robin on the big win on what was— Niall Horan (@NiallOfficial) August 13, 2017
an incredible format— Niall Horan (@NiallOfficial) August 13, 2017
People will turn their noses up at that. They always do. They’ll bristle at the prospect of an X Factor star ‘meddling’ in golf. But they’re wrong. Emphatically wrong. It’s not half as important where Horan came from as where he’s going. Golf cannot afford to let snobbery and stuffiness prevent it from riding the coat-tails of his immense popularity for as long as it possibly can.
He’s a ready-made global ambassador for the game, a one-man interest generator.
Sign him up.
Sign him up now.