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The Best Ones Make Us Move

From Tiger to a trash-talking baby, a powerful ad cannot be ignored

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The following essay and selected advertisements compose a tribute to the profitable, occasionally strange, often beautiful, decades-long marriage of golfers and the printed advertisement. View the full feature here.

Arnie. The Godfather. A man with seven majors under his belt earned a measly $3.6 million in golf prize money over the course of 50-plus competitive years. His side gig, though, changed the entire landscape of not only how athletes would be looked at as pitch persons, but also how they could be sold as heroes. For that, A.P. made roughly 875 million non-golf-related dollars rooted in marketing, advertising and licensing deals. He almost single-handedly built IMG’s professional-athletes-as-pitchmen sports arm. Air Palmer gave birth to Air Jordan.

In the introduction to his 1999 book, 20th Century Advertising, Dave Saunders proclaimed, “Advertising is the world’s most powerful industry. More powerful than at any time in history. It can help put a government in power or oust them. It can make a company’s—or country’s—fortune. And it can change public opinion.” 

The same can be said now of the power that sports and sports figures have in shaping society and culture. Golf, following Palmer’s lead, has been at the intersection of mass marketing and sports commerce for the last 50 or so years, reminding millions of people around the world that soccer, basketball, football, tennis and baseball players are not the only athletes the world needs to idolize.

Even as golf over the years has provided us with some of the funniest, cleverest and most ingenious commercials—everything from the legendary 1986 Lite Beer Open golf commercial to the shit-talking baby rockin’ the TaylorMade visor in the classic E-Trade Sports ad from 2009 to Nike’s brilliant “No Cup Is Safe” spot featuring Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy—there have been lingering unanswered questions surrounding the lack of diversity in golf commercials and the audiences they could be seen as excluding.

Women have hardly been present, outside of the stray ad with Amanda Balionis hawking an app or Lexi Thompson and/or Holly Sonders making random appearances in non-high-profile commercials for non-Fortune-500 companies, and neither have people of color beyond Tiger (unless you include Darth Vader’s Spike TV spot). Basically, golf advertising has reflected the sport. Or, at the least, it’s been a reflection of it.

Those are merely questions, unsolved but not unwarranted. But golf, as a sport and an advertising enterprise, might want to look at them if it is concerned with the public perception taken away from how the sport aligns itself in this new age of diversified marketing. Then again, maybe not. Maybe golf is acutely secure in the commercial messaging it and its players send out and whom it/they speak to and for. Because, at the end of the day, we can all go back to that “No Cup Is Safe” spot by Wieden+Kennedy for Nike and get lost in it. Watch that commercial just once and you will immediately realize that it makes no difference who the spot is targeted to or trying to reach. It moves the soul, as all great ads are supposed to do. And the soul, when open, has no color, no economic entitlement or true target audience. It’s just a great fucking ad and that’s all that should really matter, right?

A young Lee Trevino bet people on the course he could beat them with a Dr. Pepper bottle. In 1969, Dr. Pepper signed him to a deal.