On the PGA Tour, Veterans Battle New Breed of Player

Thanks to Multimillion-Dollar Purses, Stronger Athletes Are Flocking to Golf, and They're Bringing Social Media-Savvy and Powerful Swings

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Tiger's back, starting his PGA Tour this week at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where he's teamed up with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. And while that 's surely good news for the PGA Tour, that 's not what gets its chief marketing officer, Tom Wade, fired up. Instead, he's raving about the exciting wave of young golfers emerging to challenge veterans such as Mr. Woods and Phil Mickelson.

"We've never seen a wave of young players like this," said Mr. Wade, an 18-year veteran whose duties include managing the Tour's sponsorship sales and marketing partners.

Tom Wade
Tom Wade

To see what he means, look no further than YouTube. Specifically, the music video from "Golf Boys," a spoof boy band of young tour stars, including Ben Crane, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan. The video, "Oh Oh Oh," is a promotion and charity fundraiser sponsored by Farmer's Insurance. It shows the quartet, decked out in duds guaranteed to get them on a Worst Dressed List, performing choreographed moves and horsing around on a golf cart. (Sample lyrics: "Tweet, tweet. I want my birdies all day long.") The spoof has racked up nearly 3 million views.

But it's not just new blood that 's shaping the PGA Tour, said Mr. Wade, who came to the organization by way of marketing consulting and, prior to that , Folgers, which was owned by Procter & Gamble at the time. Digital transformation and globalization will be major forces for years to come, while large, multimillion-dollar purses are raising the sport's profile with developing athletes.

Ad Age : How have you seen the sport change over the 18 years you've been at the PGA Tour?

Mr. Wade: There's been tremendous growth in the sport, financially. Whereas we used to have players playing for million-dollar purses, now they're playing for 6, 7, 8, 9 million dollar purses.

Ad Age : How does that change the nature of the sport and its popularity?

Mr. Wade: We are definitely drawing a higher percentage of the best athletes than we were before. The combination of the money that can be made in this sport and the kind of athleticism that has been demonstrated by Tiger Woods ... has really led to more and more of the younger kids, when they're making a decision about what sport they want to concentrate on, deciding on golf. It's just a different game now, and I think a lot of it is the fact that a lot of the very best athletes are playing golf. They know they can make as much money playing golf as they could signing a giant contract with the NFL.

Ad Age : What does that mean for the on-the-course action?

Mr. Wade: The PGA Tour has transitioned over the last 10 years -- and it is still transitioning -- from more of a finesse game to much more of a power game.

Ad Age : Is that good for TV ratings ?

Mr. Wade: It is good for TV. It's a more exciting style of play. ... This year we had 16 winners in their 20s and 14 first-time winners. They're all long hitters and they have a go-for-broke mentality, which is exciting to our fans.

Ad Age : How important is Tiger's return?

Mr. Wade: Well, it's very important. But the sport is not dependent on any one player, and never has been and never will be. And Tiger Woods will be the first to tell you that . At the same time, Tiger is arguably the greatest to play -- an exciting player and exciting personality. He's a huge asset for the PGA Tour.

Competitively, what we are most excited about is the young, new breed taking on the established stars. You have a situation where Tiger has work to be done -- you know, he wants to win the most PGA Tour events, he wants to win the most majors—and he is highly, highly dedicated to that . And Phil [Mickelson] is not done. I'm sure he wants to put an exclamation point on a Hall of Fame career. And to have those established stars and these young guns battling it out for primacy is very exciting to us.

Ad Age : What are your digital-media priorities?

Mr. Wade: We now have a PGA Tour app on the mobile devices, and we are developing for the iPad. We are trying to basically make our sport cool, and to do that you have to be on the cool platforms.

Unlike an arena or a stadium sport where if you watch the broadcast, you are seeing pretty much everything that happens in the game, in golf we have 144 players. We have 144 balls that are spread over 100-plus acres, and we really only have time on TV to cover the players that are competing to win the championship. And many times you may be interested in how Phil Mickelson is doing, and that particular week he may be outside the TV window. So one of the ways digital is more of an upside for us than other sports is we're able to bring a fuller range of the content to fans than is accessible now.

Ad Age : What does globalization mean for you guys?

Mr. Wade: We historically have played almost all of our events in the United States and North America. Even with that , over the past 15 years virtually all the top players from around the world come here to play as members of the PGA Tour. The number of foreign-born players has gone from around 20 about 15 years ago to around 80 today. And part of that is because this is the preeminent tour in the word, but part of that is also that our TV broadcasts are now distributed to over 200 countries and over 600 million households outside the U.S. And the players that come here frequently get better or equal TV coverage back home than they would get if they were playing there. That is globalization.

Ad Age : You seem to be playing more events in places like China, and have announced the 2015 President's Cup will be in Korea. It sounds like emerging markets are a big priority.

Mr. Wade: What happens to golf is it follows economic development. As economies develop, golf follows. It starts out elite and then it grows more popular over decades. And the other stimulus and the reason we were such advocates and so proactive is , golf will return to the Olympics in 2016. Now that has some positive impact. What that does is stimulate the development of golf in developing countries because they will aspire to have members in those games. They will set up programs to train golfers. We are already involved with China. Their national team came to our headquarters for about three weeks to start to train and to learn how to train to be elite golfers. When we first played the World Cup in China there were 40 or 50 courses. There are 700 now. The projection is that it will grow to 2,000 by 2020. It's only a matter of time before we have our Yao Ming.

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