Let's go clubbing
There’s a new playground for the rich and famous — the golf course, where deals are made and social cachet banked. THE RAKE digs out its old Pringle sweater and learns how to put for dough...
In the Rolex pavilion overlooking the 16th green at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club in Rome, as Rickie Fowler conceded the three-foot putt to Tommy Fleetwood that sealed the Ryder Cup for Europe, a small crowd of onlookers had gathered. Royalty, giants of enterprise and some of the most celebrated names in sport and entertainment were among them, all invited by the world’s most famous luxury brand to experience the world’s most famous golf event. Theirs was to take advantage of Rolex’s eagle’s nest, hovering above crowds thousands strong three storeys up into Rome’s cerulean skies. The best seats in the house.
The scene — hidden from public view, as it was — captured in microcosm luxury’s current obsession with golf and the symbiotic relationship between the two that serves a single purpose: to capture the attentions of the ultra-wealthy.
Because they are watching. And playing. And consuming golf like there’s no tomorrow. Wealth-X’s 2021 report on the “interests, passions and hobbies of the wealthy” recorded golf as the No. 1 sport among the world’s most moneyed — and by a fair yardage. It calculated that 18.6 per cent of those with a net worth of more than $5m favoured golf ahead of football (second with 11.3 per cent), skiing (10.9 per cent) and tennis (7.1 per cent). Motor racing, long thought to be the preferred playground of the rich, propped up the top 10 with 2.8 per cent.
Many luxury brands are already in step. A database managed by GlobalData that looks at golf sponsorship deals suggests Rolex and NetJets are the second and third most active brands in golf sponsorship, behind only Titleist, which, as golfers will know, is a golf equipment manufacturer. It estimates that Rolex’s biggest golf deal is with the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour), last year worth $192.95m. Rolex, ever masters of discretion, do not comment on such things. But they know their audience.
Why golf ? In the words of Wealth-X, golf ’s “association with wealth, status, private clubs and dealmaking in many countries” puts it out in front. For those seeking that status, it helps that, unlike fashion, elite golf is unlikely to overreach. Golf clubs are limited by geography, not to mention the hundreds of millions it can cost to build five-star courses and membership experiences, with the effect that exclusivity is all but guaranteed.
As such, today, the ‘best’ memberships carry status beyond cars, watches, wine cellars and perhaps even homes, acting as type-A symbols of achievement and social acceptance. Augusta National, home of the annual invitation-only U.S. Masters and the most prestigious golf club in the world, is said to have around 300 members, among them Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Condoleezza Rice. New memberships are issued sparingly, and apparently not to those who ask.
Others have looked to replicate the model. Built on an old oil refinery in New Jersey at a cost of £300m and with views of New York’s needled skyline, Liberty National opened in 2006 and is said to command a higher initiation fee than any club in the world — as much as $500,000. The club’s membership, of around 300, is believed to include Samuel L. Jackson, Vera Wang and Justin Timberlake, whose Instagram often has him prowling the fairways.
It’s not only in golf’s traditional heartland where such clubs are popping up. Developers in the Middle East, China, India, Vietnam, Poland and beyond have followed the mould set by the U.S., the U.K. and Japan. Last year, the first so-called ‘championship’ golf course (a long, tough track designed to host professional tournaments) opened in Pakistan. The Rumanza Golf & Country Club has a course designed by the six-time major winner Sir Nick Faldo and also includes luxury property investment opportunities, using a golf-and-residential model being rolled out by upscale developers across the globe. The Canadian developers Cabot opened their first site in Nova Scotia in 2016 and next year will add golf, resort and residential destinations in Florida and Saint Lucia. Four-bedroom residences at the Cabot Citrus Farms property north of Tampa start from $2.795m.
Golf has become one of the richest sports at a professional level, too. When the Norwegian Viktor Hovland won this year’s FedEx Cup, the culmination of the PGA Tour in the U.S., he scooped a cheque for a barely fathomable $18m. Meanwhile, on the DP World Tour, the Rolex Series of five events had a total prize fund of $46m this year. And there’s no escaping LIV, the breakaway tour backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, which offers the winner of each of its 54-hole, 48-man tournaments a useful $4m.
Recent escalation has come quickly, but golf could scarcely be described as an overnight success. Great names in golf, such as the 19th century’s serial Open winner Old Tom Morris, or the Augusta National designer and Masters founder Bobby Jones, were considered golfing royalty across the social classes and paved the way for the abundances of the modern game.
That game began to take shape in the 1960s, fuelled by Mark McCormack and his International Management Group, more commonly known by its initials, IMG. It was McCormack, an American lawyer, who clocked the vast commercial potential in endorsements at the dawn of televised sport, and he made his first clients a golfing trio who would become known as the Big Three: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. By the end of the decade, the three men had all been signed by Rolex. ‘Arnie’, Jack and Gary were enormously different characters, but each in his own way was box office, combining a talent for winning, charisma and an appetite for centre stage that made them natural figureheads for a brand such as Rolex looking to position itself among the elite.
Arnie may have passed, but more than half a century later Nicklaus and Player are active Rolex ‘testimonees’, as the Geneva watchmaker refers to those who endorse it. Such figures also populate the higher echelons of tennis, motor racing, music, the arts and more.
If Rolex and the Big Three created the template, countless others have pursued the same propulsion strategy. Today, golf is a conduit to the wealthy for BMW and Mercedes, Omega and TAG Heuer, Ralph Lauren and Loro Piana, and many more besides.
By that token, golf is no big-money neophyte. But in this new world, saturated by brands and marketing channels, its role as kingmaker has never been more apparent. In two years’ time, the Ryder Cup will return to U.S. soil and to Bethpage on Long Island. Rolex, in their continuing bid to hold on to their crown, will be there. You can bet they will have the best seats in the house.
Read the full story in Issue 91, available now.