Traditionally, golf is a game of genteel pace, played over many hours and many miles of green, meticulously designed terrain.
Unlike in rough and tumble sports, golfers walk instead of run, dress nattily and sometimes eccentrically, and retire to the 19th hole to eat, drink and generally recoup the calories burnt during the 18-hole trek.
Golf caught on in the post-World War II years, becoming the sport of choice for the well-to-do and, as a result, a favourite of watchmakers looking to up their game. Rolex, for instance, shrewdly hitched itself to golf in 1967, and now sponsors the Masters, the US Open and the British Open.
And its list of golf ambassadors reads like a roll call of golfing champions – from Arnold Palmer to Tiger Woods. Its association with golf no doubt helped propel it to become the world’s largest luxury watch brand over the second half of the 20th century.
For many years, watchmaking was like golf – unhurried and comfortable. This was especially so in the three decades starting in the 1970s as Switzerland grew into the dominant force in watchmaking, and erstwhile rivals like the US fell away.
In those days, new wristwatch models were unveiled every couple of years and, once in the collection, went on for decades. Patek Philippe’s signature perpetual calendar, the reference 3940, went on for 20 years before being replaced. So did the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak “Jumbo”, starting in 1972.
One reason for their longevity was that demand for expensive mechanical watches was low, in the aftermath of the quartz crisis. So, such long-lived watches are today considered classics – enough were made over time to give them widespread recognition.
Today’s world moves at a faster pace. So does the watch business, with new products being presented at a pace akin to that of the fashion industry’s seasonal collections. This is to meet the demand of the market, which wants new products sooner, as watches have gone from being functional objects to accessories.
The watch industry has evolved, too, and in more ways than one. Sports that offer vast mass-market appeal, like Formula One and tennis, are more lucrative, so watch company tie-ups with those sports have become more common.
Golf is no longer a big draw for watch brands. Telling is Richard Mille’s partnership with two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, which spawned a best-selling all-white sports watch. Despite the watch’s popularity, Watson remains little known outside golfing circles, unlike Rafael Nadal, for instance.
And, despite a changed world, golf has preserved its genteel pace. So it is not surprising that interest in the sport is dropping in mature markets – a recent profile of the sport in The Economist was headlined “Handicapped” – with the US seeing the number of active players fall by a quarter in the last decade, according to Bloomberg.
However, the sport remains popular in countries where it is relatively new, notably China, still the world’s most important consumer of luxury watches, despite a recent slowdown.
Which is perhaps why Rolex signed up Tiger Woods as an ambassador, after a rival watch brand dropped him when his marital troubles came to light. His fame transcends golf.