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IBM is pairing up IBM Watson with Tom Watson at The Masters -- obviously

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

The idea of IBM Watson sponsoring legendary golfer Tom Watson at The Masters is such an obvious fit, it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner.

Watson, 66, has had a breathtaking golf career. He has won three of the sport’s four majors, and won two of them multiple times. (The only major he never won is the PGA Championship.) But the most impressive part may be his longevity. He turned pro 45 years ago. This weekend, the sexagenarian will tee off at Augusta for a tournament in which some of the favorites are all younger than 30. Watson has said that this will be the final time he competes at The Masters.

That means the time was right for a splashy sponsorship deal. Enter: IBM (IBM), which has been the technology partner of The Masters since 1996. It also powers the Masters app, which launched in 2010 and has a slew of new bells and whistles this year.

These two names are a good fit: a 105-year-old tech company that did not have a single partnership with any pro golfer, and a 66-year-old pro golfer who is a classy and scandal-free, if quiet, choice for an endorsement deal. And then there’s the humor of their names: IBM’s founder was named Tom Watson. Tom Watson, the golfer, likes that.

“To be honest with you, I’ve been thinking about IBM for a long time,” he tells Yahoo Finance. “I always felt like, wouldn’t it be cool to have an involvement with IBM? I wish they’d try to use me in some way, shape or form, and we could try to make fun of the situation. It always made sense to me.”

It makes sense to him because of the technology, too. Lest you think a 66-year-old isn’t hip to what’s new in golf tech, Watson raves about the updated Masters app, especially for a reason that many other, younger golfers might be too cautious to verbalize.

On the app, he says, “You can follow any golfer you want and see exactly where they are, which is nice because on CBS they follow just a handful of players for the entire day, it feels like, and you never get to see anyone else. So, I’m on the golf course at The Masters and I want to see what Rory McIlroy did on the second hole, I can flip out my phone and see instantly. That, to me, is what people want these days, they want instant access.”

Watson’s choice of example for a player he’d follow on the app, McIlroy, is actually one of the players who will get a lot of TV screen time. A better example of a golfer you might want to follow on the app that you may not see as much on TV, might be… Tom Watson, who hasn’t won a major since 1982.

At a time when the traditional athlete endorsement deal—pay a star a fee for him or her to hawk your product in an ad—is less popular due to the risk of a personal scandal, Tom Watson is a safe, smart choice for a company like IBM. John Kent, who manages IBM’s sponsorship marketing, mentions, of course, the humor of the two Watson names, but adds, “We thought the partnership with Tom would be a great opportunity not only to celebrate his illustrious golf career and final Masters, but also to show how fans and athletes, including golfers, can harness the power of data and analytics.”

Watson says he has seen firsthand what IBM Watson, the company’s smart computer system, can do for a golfer, on and off the course. Using analytics and “cognitive performance data,” the company has been touting Watson’s ability to provide insights on a golfer’s swing, as well as, on the social media side, identifying trends before they hit. To kick off the new friendship between Watson and Watson, the golfer will appear in one of the “Watson & Me” TV ads, a campaign that has featured tennis star Serena Williams and “Jeopardy” champ Ken Jennings, among others.

This also marks the first year the Masters app is available on wearables like the Apple Watch. As the sport of golf has struggled in recent years to keep growing the game’s popularity among young people, many have seen new technology (such as GoPro cameras on the course) as one potential salve. At the same time, some of the most prominent figures in golf have implied they don’t want to see the game change to expand to new audiences. Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who owns 18 courses, is of that camp; Tom Watson is not.

“You see teaching directly off the phones now, where you can take a video of your swing and send it to your instructor who’s in Las Vegas, and he can look at it and talk to you about it — boom, just like that,” Watson says. “It’s almost real-time. Using technology and statistics to help you figure out where you need help in your game, absolutely that’s terrific. And that instant information is what young people are used to.”

Watson sees today’s hot young players – most notably, the Big Three – as key to propelling golf into the future: he lists Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day. “They’re in their early to mid-20s, they’re out there lightin’ up the golf world, and kids see these young men, and say, ‘Hey, they’re not too much older than I am! And they grasp onto that and follow them. That’s the engine that’s going to project golf into the next phase,” he says.

Many golf fanatics would add Rickie Fowler to his list of young guns—the group is more often being called the Big Four. Of course, there are other strong contenders at The Masters this year, like Adam Scott, who has been on a streak of late. Or perhaps a surprise veteran will end up near the top: someone like Tom Watson. At the very least, in his final year at the famed major, younger fans will find out who Watson the golfer is, thanks to Watson the computer.

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Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.  

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