Knight in Shining Armour
Jordan Spieth's memorable summer paid off big for the clothing sponsor outfitting him from head to toe
September 01, 2015
By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
BALTIMORE, Md. – An undrafted long-snapper when he finished college at Virginia, Ryan Kuehl managed to spend a dozen years in the NFL before rupturing his Achilles tendon on the first day of training camp in 2007.
His team, the New York Giants, would go on to upset the previously unbeaten New England Patriots to end the season as Super Bowl champs. Kuehl, meanwhile, would never play another down.
Five years after he hung up his uniform and delivered his last long snap, Kuehl found himself at a PGA TOUR event at Congressional Country Club in 2012. It was Tiger Woods’ event, then called the AT&T National, and Kuehl had come to watch a potential client for the company he was now working at, Under Armour.
The kid was a celebrated amateur from Texas -- Jordan Spieth.
Officially, Kuehl started following Spieth on the 10th hole, which is where he introdcued himself to the teenager. But the old football instincts kicked in prior to that.
“In reality, I started watching on the fourth hole,” says Kuehl. “Old scouts when I was in the NFL always told me when you really want to evaluate someone, you evaluate them when they don’t know you’re watching.
“When players know a scout is watching, they go a little bit harder. I did it, too. But what are they like when they don’t know I’m watching? I wanted to see how he interacted with the standard bearer, fans, his caddie.”
Spieth didn’t exactly light it up that week -- he shot 75-75 to miss the cut -- but Kuehl liked what he saw and heard. As Under Armour’s vice-president for sports and marketing, he had a sense that the 18-year-old was something special.
So Under Armour spent the summer building a relationship not only with Spieth but also his family.
The more Kuehl spoke to Spieth, the more he was impressed with the youngster. In a sport in which simply playing well can produce a comfortable existence, Spieth wanted more.
“Here’s a guy at 18 years old at the time talking about wanting to win,” Kuehl recalls. “It wasn’t, ‘I’m going to keep my card.’ He doesn’t care if he finishes second or 50th. That’s a unique outlook. The money, the card, the stability -- that’s all secondary.
“He wants to win.”
In 2015, that’s pretty much what Spieth did. He won four times on TOUR, two of those majors. He made an impressive run at an unprecedented single-season Grand Slam. He ended the TOUR season ranked No. 1 in FedExCup points and No. 1 in the world.
Even though he has since dropped to No. 2 in both categories, he will have a chance to win the FedExCup title at the Playoffs finale at East Lake.
Oh, and maybe you noticed -- he’s done all this wearing Under Armour apparel.
Spieth moves more than the needle. He moves product.
The Under Armour Sweaterfleece he wore during this year’s Open Championship in July was already sold out by Monday of that week -- typical of most, if not all, of his apparel during a major championship.
Since signing him in January 2013, the company’s golf revenue will have more than tripled by the end of this year. In North America, its apparel ranks behind only Nike.
On a more granular level, the growth has been even more explosive. Under Armour belts -- a product that gets most of its exposure in golf -- have seen sales figures grow more than sevenfold from just two years ago, according to one industry insider, while its numbers in the accessories market have almost quadrupled the past year.
Not bad for a company that as a whole has only been in existence since 1996 and didn’t ink its first golfer (Hunter Mahan) until 2004.
Its real eureka moment in golf, however, came in April when Spieth romped to a wire-to-wire victory at the Masters.
Founder and CEO Kevin Plank told ESPN.com that his company “grew up today. He was challenged by the greatest players in the world on the biggest stage, looked them straight in the eye and never blinked.”
“He’s validated us,” adds Kuehl. “From a brand perspective, people started looking at us differently. This was a new place for us. We’d always been a team sport brand.”
Even before Spieth, Under Armour had interest in golf. How it got involved is a story much in line with how it was founded to begin with: One of opportunity.
Plank’s first big deal was getting his alma mater’s football team to use his gear at the University of Maryland. Not long after, an official called Under Armour and said the school needed polo shirts because that’s what coaches liked to wear during games.
The company quickly made a batch in team colors and sent them over.
The following summer, the phone rang again. They needed more shirts because much of the staff was playing golf in them.
The light bulb went on.
Eventually, Under Armour signed Mahan. They wanted a young player, and Mahan was 22 at the time and playing his first full season on TOUR. Mahan, who lives in Dallas, was represented by Jay Danzi.
Danzi became Spieth’s agent when the golfer turned pro. Having had that previous business relationship with Mahan, it was a natural connection for Under Armour to be interested in Spieth.
When Danzi told Under Armour that his young client had an interest in representing their apparel, the company laid out a plan in an attempt to sign him and brought Spieth to the global offices in Baltimore.
Spieth called it a recruiting trip. What sold him was an emerging golf brand that was athletic in nature. It was also familiar to him: Spieth knew about Under Armour from other sports he played growing up, including baseball.
“I went up there and when I left Baltimore, it was a no-brainer,” he told USA Today. “I was going with them. I see where they were going in golf. The whole atmosphere there, seeing the headquarters, I loved the attitude there. It kind of reflected my own attitude.
“I was in the underdog role. I looked at myself as the underdog. I still do ... Under Armour, that’s kind of been their grit, being the underdog, finding out-of-the-box ways to innovate, to get things done. And their growth in golf is going to be phenomenal. They showed so much trust in me.”
In January of this year, they showed even more. Under Armour signed Spieth to a 10-year deal.
Inside Under Armour’s sprawling 15-acre, 400,000 square-foot campus, set on the city's Inner Harbor on the former site of a Procter & Gamble plant where the buildings are named after the company’s different brands of soaps, bits and pieces of heir Jordan are everywhere.
In the entryway to one of the buildings is a larger-than-life poster of Spieth mounted on a brick wall.
On the walls of Kuehl’s office is an autographed flag from Spieth’s first victory on TOUR, the 2013 John Deere Classic. Next to it in a frame is a recent issue of Sports Illustrated with the cover line “Jordan Rules,” after Spieth won the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay to get halfway to the Grand Slam.
You have a feeling Under Armour will need to set aside more room for Spieth memorabilia and celebratory images. After all, the timing of the January signing couldn’t have been better, given the Summer of Spieth that followed.
“Knowing that we have Jordan Spieth as the face of Under Armour Golf into the future solidifies our presence in the category,” Plank told Fortune magazine.
“Under Armour is very pleased,” Spieth said earlier this year. “When I mentioned it's a team win, that's not just specifically our team as far as instructor, chiro, manager, trainer -- it's all those that take part, all sponsors ...
“What they allow us to do is to be completely worry‑free on the golf course. We don't have to think about anything we're doing, other than picking that next shot. I don't have to worry if something is tugging on me. I don't have to worry about if this new driver, new ball is going to go somewhere else. I'm very comfortable in what we have.”
Under Armour, meanwhile, is comfortable enough with Spieth to expand even further.
Last month, the company filed for three trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a Spieth logo within the Under Armour brand. The logo has two Js with an S.
Under Armour also has two new shoes -- one with spikes the other a spikeless model -- and hasn’t ruled out getting into the equipment business in the future if the timing is right (though it’s something they wouldn’t do themselves).
For Spieth’s part, he is very hands-on. He takes two or three trips a year to the company campus and has input on everything, from fabric to fit and all things in between. He’s also very active in photo shoots and is featured in a new television commercial alongside NBA MVP Steph Curry and prima ballerina Misty Copeland.
Meanwhile, Under Armour continues to grow, right along with the player who is covered head to toe in its logo. Earlier this year, Plank laid out plans to create a massive new neighborhood along the Inner Harbor that would allow for shopping, restaurants, a distillery, horse stables and of course his company's headquarters.
“I do not want to limit how big of a company or how great of a company Under Armour can be because we're landlocked,” he told the Baltimore Sun.
Much like Spieth, the future looks big.
Jordan Spieth’s walk-off birdie putt to win the Valspar Championship