How Niall Horan And Modest! Golf Are Changing The Game

Kit Alexander explores how international superstar Niall Horan and his management company Modest! Golf are playing a key role in growing the sport and making it more inclusive

How Niall Horan And Modest! Golf Are Changing The Game
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Kit Alexander explores how international superstar Niall Horan and his management company Modest! Golf are playing a key role in growing the sport and making it more inclusive

How Niall Horan And Modest! Golf Are Changing The Game

Niall Horan has quickly become one of the most influential people in golf.

His company, Modest! Golf, manages a diverse group of players, runs tournaments and has recently joined forces with The R&A to inspire more young people to play the game.

His vision and passion is going to help shape an exciting and buoyant future for our sport.

How it all began

Horan has been a keen golfer his whole life.

Through his friendships with tour players, including Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose, and while spending time at European Tour events, he realised there was an opportunity to help younger pros at the start of their careers.

He teamed up with good friend Mark McDonnell, who has over 16 years of experience in the sports industry, and that dream became a reality in the form of Modest! Golf in May 2016.

You might think Horan’s profile and wealth – his 41 million Twitter followers is comfortably more than the world’s top ten golfers combined and he has an estimated net worth of around $70m – would make it easy for him, but the golf industry can be a tough nut to crack.

“It was hard to gain credibility at the start,” Horan admits.

“The nos and bumps in the road were a bit harsh. Trying to gain credibility with the players and within the industry itself was tough.

"But a couple of decisions we made early doors were important – we wanted to be involved with events and wanted young, up-and-coming players before taking on a top-50 player. The roots of the company were good.”

From those strong roots, Modest! Golf has flourished.

Niall Horan and Mark McDonnell

Just five years after launching, it’s now in a position to significantly influence the present and future of the sport. It’s a great place to be, but Horan’s aspirations from the outset were – excuse the pun – more modest.

“Niall never came to me and said, ‘I can change the face of the game’,” says McDonnell.

“Niall always recognised he had a part he could play, but clearly to change the face of the game takes a number of different people and stakeholders. But we’re trying to do our bit.

"We are a management company that manages players, but we also recognise that through great talent, some initiatives, the network we’ve built and Niall’s following, we can have a positive impact.”

The importance of inclusivity

Modest! has men, women and disability golfers on its books.

“Inclusivity is what our business is about and it’s what our business stands for,” says McDonnell.

“One of my standout moments was announcing Brendan Lawlor (in September 2019). For us, the ladies’ category and disability golf are two of the biggest growth areas.

"If we can help elevate them and put some people who we represent on a bigger platform to talk about them more, we feel it’s something we want to do.”

That became a reality this summer with the ISPS Handa World Invitational taking place at Galgorm Castle in Northern Ireland from July 29-August 1, and Lawlor hosting (and winning) the World Invitational Disability Tournament.

Brendan Lawlor

The men’s and women’s event was sanctioned by the European Tour, LPGA Tour and Ladies European Tour and featured 144 men and 144 women playing alongside each other for an equal share of the $2.35million purse.

“Things like equal pay in the tournament are what we can do to get things off the ground,” says the former One Direction man.

“Then that gets headlines, and we start getting calls from big organisations and we’re working together all of a sudden. Having the support of ISPS and Dr Handa has been huge for us. We can have all these ideas, but we do need help to get it over the line.

“Anything that we’ve asked of ISPS Handa, they’ve been brilliant. We’ve been so lucky that they’ve seen the little bit we may be able to give to the game, and the tours as well.

"It’s very important to have the European Tour, the LET and the LPGA all on the same page.”

Shaping the future

Perhaps the most significant call Modest! has received came from The R&A, which resulted in it being asked to help design and develop a series of grassroots programmes aimed at inspiring more people into golf and retaining them within the sport.

In true form, Horan was playing golf when McDonnell told him The R&A had reached out.

“I nearly fell over because I thought ‘this is amazing, this is what we’ve been waiting for’.

"Straight away we got on calls with Martin Slumbers (chief executive of The R&A) and Phil Anderton (chief development officer at The R&A) and they were brilliant. They’re really forward-thinking. Not what I thought The R&A would be like, as mad as that sounds.”

So what happens now, and when can we expect to see some concrete plans coming from Modest! and The R&A?

“It’s not a quick process and they aren’t going to throw money at anything just to see if it sticks,” McDonnell explains.

“We’re taking our time to speak to as many different groups as we can to start putting together some really meaningful programmes. Hopefully they will resonate with a lot of people who don’t play or play rarely.”

Horan and McDonnell believe the August 2020 appointment of Anderton, who has worked at Coca-Cola, as chief executive of Scottish Rugby Union and Hearts FC and chief marketing officer of the ATP in tennis, is extremely significant.

“Phil Anderton is a great guy and has a really interesting background of disrupting sports in a credible way,” says McDonnell.

“For example, he was behind the tennis at the O2 Arena. We don’t want to take golf in a completely different area, down the tacky or publicity route. Niall and I are quite traditional. We like golf how it is – it just needs a few tweaks to make it more appealing.”

The recognition that golf is a brilliant game that just requires the odd tweak and a bit of work to improve its reputation and communication to non-golfers is absolutely integral.

Horan and McDonnell recognise many of the barriers that exist, but they’re also aware there’s a huge opportunity to grow the game.

“The barriers are quite obvious,” says McDonnell.

“The speed has always been heavily criticised, the cost, the fashion. Our role is to work with The R&A to see how we can bring those barriers down to allow more people to experience golf.

"We know it’s a game you can get the bug for really quickly. We’re not reinventing the wheel, but it’s about working with a massive organisation to create more opportunities for people to be introduced to the game, and then how we retain them.

“This isn’t a problem where we’ve got no one to sell the game to, because there are so many people who don’t play. For us, it’s a massive opportunity and a really exciting challenge to try and tap into those non-golfers. There’s a massive market of young people who want to take up sports, and we’ve seen there’s been a huge increase in cycling, so golf has a massive opportunity.

"We feel we can do it without saying ripped jeans are allowed on the course. You’ve got to maintain a level of tradition, but we shouldn’t be having a hoo-ha if somebody wears a hoody on a golf course.”

Horan adds: “It’s the people at the top now who need to move the needle. Augusta National with the Drive, Chip and Putt and the Women’s Amateur; The R&A doing this.

"It’s all going to start to move the needle. It’s those at the top who are going to make it happen, and we’re going to help them.”

Kit Alexander

Kit Alexander is a golf broadcaster and journalist who commentates and presents for the DP World Tour, PGA EuroPro Tour and Rose Ladies Series. He has over 15 years’ experience of magazine and television work in the golf industry and is a regular contributor to Golf Monthly.