Golf

Changing the face of golf: How Paige Spiranac is leading Myrtle Beach’s youth movement

Paige Spiranac represents the Myrtle Beach golf market

Model, former pro golfer and social media personality Paige Spiranac represents the Myrtle Beach golf market as an ambassador. She will be appearing nightly this week during the World Amateur Handicap Championship’s 19th Hole expo and party.
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Model, former pro golfer and social media personality Paige Spiranac represents the Myrtle Beach golf market as an ambassador. She will be appearing nightly this week during the World Amateur Handicap Championship’s 19th Hole expo and party.

Paige Spiranac has gained influence in the golf world through very nontraditional and modern means.

Make no mistake, she’s a talented golfer. She helped San Diego State win a conference championship and won a pro event on the Cactus Tour.

But the 26-year-old is not famous for her playing prowess or success in tournaments, she doesn’t work for a major print or television media outlet, and she’s not a prominent agent.

Spiranac is a social media superstar, and that carries a lot of weight in 2019.

It’s an influence that the Myrtle Beach golf industry is tapping into in its attempt to reach and attract younger consumers, perhaps with more progressive attitudes about the game.

Spiranac is in the midst of her second year representing the Myrtle Beach market as an ambassador, and she’s spending this week on the Grand Strand for the 36th PlayGolfMyrtleBeach.com World Amateur Handicap Championship.

The tournament featuring 3,215 players from 49 states and more than 20 countries is being played through Friday on 60 Grand Strand courses. Spiranac has nightly appearances at the World’s Largest 19th Hole golf expo and party at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in addition to some marketing work at area golf courses during the day.

“One of the initiatives we’re very conscious of is trying to make sure we are communicating to younger golfers, and in the social media and digital environment we’re in now, somebody like Paige has the ability to be able to penetrate that market for us,” said Bill Golden, president of Golf Tourism Solutions, the marketing and technology agency that promotes the Myrtle Beach market and has contracted with Spiranac. “She has a unique platform, she is very adept at social media, she has one of the largest social media followings in all of golf including the professional side.”

Spiranac, who is represented by the Octagon sports and entertainment agency, has 1.8 million Instagram followers and 258,000 Twitter followers.

By comparison, she’s close behind Tiger Woods in Instagram followers, is even with Rory McIlroy and about 200,000 ahead of Rickie Fowler – the most popular stars on the PGA Tour.

Instant Internet fame

Spiranac grew up in Colorado in an athletic family. Her father, Dan, was a free safety on Pittsburgh’s 1976 NCAA football championship team, her mother, Annette, was a professional ballerina and her older sister Lexie competed in track at Stanford.

She excelled in gymnastics and was invited to the famed Karolyi Ranch, but had to give up the sport at the age of 12 after suffering broken kneecaps. Golf became her next athletic passion and she played at Arizona and San Diego State.

Spiranac’s Instagram following exploded during her senior year when she and her page were featured on the Total Frat Move website. “I woke up the next day and I normally had like 500 followers, and then I had 50,000, then 100,000 and it just kept growing and growing,” Spiranac said.

Her instant popularity opened doors that are newly created in marketing. She was contacted by some golf companies offering her products like clubs and golf balls to endorse and promote, which came in handy when she turned pro after college. She was running junior golf camps and caddying to try to support her playing career.

“I was like, ‘Yes, I’ll do anything I can, I don’t have to pay for golf balls anymore,’ so it was really great,” Spiranac said. “Kind of from there it grew into a business and I tried to use it to my advantage to make some money and help my golf career. Everything I was making I was putting back into playing professionally.”

She played in about 25 pro events over a year, she said, making a paycheck in all but two “and barely broke even. I was like, ‘This sucks,’ ” said Spiranac, who hasn’t played a pro event in a couple years. “It’s a grind. It’s really, really hard and the girls are so good. It’s difficult out there and I didn’t have any financial backing from anyone so I had to work a second job, and my second job just happened to be very public with doing social media and media work for different companies.

“I was burnt out, done, especially from playing junior golf then college golf and going straight to pro. After that first year of making no money and playing halfway decent I was like I’m just going to give it a break and do the other side of things for a little bit and see if I like that better, and I definitely have liked it a lot better.”

Finding Myrtle Beach

Spiranac hadn’t been to Myrtle Beach before Golf Tourism Solutions invited her to make an appearance at the 2017 World Am. She then signed on as an ambassador in 2018 and ’19.

She promotes not only the area golf courses but also the Strand in general, including restaurants, attractions and the beach.

“I just kind of fell in love with Myrtle Beach and so from there we’re like, ‘Hey we can do a lot of really cool stuff with this,’ ” Spiranac said. “We just kind of showcase how this is a really great place to come and hang out, play golf, vacation, or even live here. It’s been really fun. I always love coming here. The golf courses are amazing.”

Her Myrtle Beach promotion includes multiple Play with Paige sweepstakes, public appearances including at the World Am, meet and greets, and loads of video content for GTS and Spiranac’s social media pages.

“The nice thing about kind of being my own company and my own brand is I can do whatever I want. So I don’t have to put myself in a box,” Spiranac said. “ . . . I can pretty much do anything and whatever, so any opportunity that comes my way I’m usually obviously going to say yes to it. I’m open to anything and I’m just excited to keep pushing myself, challenging myself and doing anything I think is fun and interesting.”

Golden said the digital numbers and demographic data support Spiranac’s impact with her reach.

“It has made a significant impact in terms of our traction with videos, Instagram, the social media programs that we’ve done, she’s been very influential in helping us gain traction there,” Golden said. “. . . Through social media, through the website, through email addresses, [the audience] has definitely gotten younger. That’s due in large part to social media in general but also to some degree to her influence as well.”

Golden said GTS has a contract extension option with Spiranac for 2020. “I feel comfortable that conversation should happen toward the future,” Golden said.

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Paige Spiranac speaks with media at Myrtle Beach National Golf Course Monday afternoon. Josh Bell jbell@thesunnews.com

Spiranac’s other sponsors include the 18Birdies GPS app and Mizzen+Main dress shirts, and she appeared as a model in the 2018 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. “It’s been kind of a weird journey but it’s been really fun,” she said. “SI was an amazing experience and it was so much fun and I’ve gotten to do so many really cool things.”

She plays in several celebrity charity events including the Hootie & The Blowfish Monday After the Masters Celebrity Pro-Am at Barefoot Resort for the past couple years and this year’s Legends of Golf event, where her playing partners were Justin Timberlake, Mark Wahlberg and Gary Player.

“It’s really insane when I think about the people I’ve met and things I’ve done and kind of all these experiences,” Spiranac said. “Moving forward I want to stay doing digital media working with really progressive, fun companies like Myrtle Beach Golf and just trying to grow the game and make golf seem like more fun.”

Spiranac’s social media posts include her posing and playing the game, as well as poking fun at herself and other aspects of the game in videos.

“I think people looking in, they think it’s just kind of this old guy sport, and to be frank it is,” Spiranac said. “So to kind of change the culture around golf through social media and fun videos and not taking myself too seriously and getting more people involved in the game, that’s what I want to continue to do.”

The yearning for competition hasn’t completely disappeared. Spiranac frequently thinks about giving pro golf another shot and believes she eventually will. She thinks her game is better than it has ever been, and said she hasn’t shot a round above par since ending her pro career – though she also confessed to giving herself some par putts inside 6 feet.

“But I’m having so much fun now and it’s definitely a mental break that I needed because I was just so burnt out and I really truly hated golf. So it’s fun to love it again and fall back in love with golf,” Spiranac said. “I think when I’m done doing this and I feel financially stable enough I’ll go back and I’ll do that.”

Pushing a purpose

Spiranac’s greatest cause is anti-bullying, and for the past three years she has been an ambassador for The Cybersmile Foundation anti-bullying organization that focuses on cyberbullying.

To look at her appearance and social media following, you might suspect her life has been an ongoing stream of popularity and positivity.

But she has experienced bullying throughout her life, so she knows the psychological impact it can have and wants to help others who have endured it.

As a child, Spiranac had a rare scalp condition that caused her hair to fall out. That contributed to her being shunned and picked on by classmates, leading her parents to resort to homeschooling.

She found refuge in gymnastics and golf, but at Arizona she said women in other sports there spread nasty rumors about her around campus, leading her to be ostracized and to her transfer to San Diego State, where she finally found a welcoming coach and team.

As a pro, she was widely criticized by fans, players and media after accepting an invitation to play in a Ladies European Tour event that was extended largely because of her popularity.

And hate messages are often among her countless direct messages daily on social media.

She participates in campaigns with Cybersmile and speaks to groups including middle school students and youth organizations including Boys & Girls Clubs about positivity a few times a year.

“Something that’s really important to me is just being yourself, loving yourself and doing what you want to do . . .just not letting people bring you down,” Spiranac said. “Because I dealt with it a lot especially early on in my career because what I was doing was very different in the golf industry and I got a lot of hate for it. If I had listened to those people and let it bring me down then I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

She tries to respond to direct messages every day from youth or parents who have concerns about bullying. “People don’t realize how bad it can really get with harassment and death threats and stalking. It’s really scary stuff,” Spiranac said. “So I always try to tell the parents if their kid is coming to them and seem distressed, take them seriously.”

Cybersmile has grown with Spiranac’s assistance and has aligned with the WWE and several pop stars. “I always say if I can help at least one person then I feel like I’ve done my job,” Spiranac said.

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