Bubba Watson flies high with hovercraft golf cart video
4 April 2013
By Colleen Leahey
Oakley might help make the centerpiece of Bubba Watson's viral video into a real vehicle.
FORTUNE -- Bubba Watson is not your ordinary golfer. Before donning Augusta National's esteemed green jacket, the 2012 Masters champion was busy creating a music video with fellow pros Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, and Ben Crane. The Golf Boys’ synchronized dance moves lit up the Internet -- and about two years later, it seems Watson has gone viral again.
On Tuesday morning, Oakley released a video of Watson cruising the fairways of Arizona's Raven Golf Club in a sleek cart floating on nine inches of air. The hovercraft, named BW1, resembles a barefoot running shoe: Its white glossy nose slants toward a roof, only to hollow out before peaking above the back engine; the golf cart-esque features sit atop a ribbed black cloud as the vehicle skims the greens, sand traps, and hazard waters. Its footprint pressure is 33 times less than that of a human, leaving courses virtually unscathed.
Watson signed with Oakley in January, and the company's twofold marketing strategy was simple: generate awareness around Oakley as a golf brand and Watson as an Oakley athlete. The sport oozes old rather than hip, yet Watson's successful history with YouTube inspired Nathan Strange, Oakley Golf's director of global marketing, to hire the creative minds behind Thinkmodo, viral video kings James Percelay and Michael Krivicka. Sitting around a table, the team brainstormed wacky ways to focus on innovation and design, adding energy to the tired sport while staying true to golf's tradition.
When first tossed about, the idea of a flying golf cart seemed ridiculous. But for the brand that backs events like the X-Games, the idea began to look feasible.
Known for its edginess, Oakley is seen by established clubs and pros as the spunky rising star on the course with a bit of swag (making Bubba Watson the perfect golfer for them to sponsor). Watson went with the flow, telling Strange, "Look man, I'm just a golfer. You can help me build a brand and make me look cool, too." He and the (branded) golf cart would be the stars of the video, creating buzz for both Watson and Oakley.
Thinkmodo's Percelay did some digging and stumbled upon Neoteric Hovercraft, a small company based in Indiana. Chris Fitzgerald, who founded Neoteric in 1976, may be the best in the hover business, but he had quite the challenge on his hands: Due to Watson's touring schedule, his crew had to build the custom golf cart hovercraft in about three weeks. (It typically takes 3-4 months to manufacture such a vehicle.) Oakley worked with the company to ensure the design and look was on par with its brand, while helping Neoteric adapt standard golf cart features for the BW1 prototype. Fitzgerald describes the experience as a scramble, but the company pulled it off. By mid-January, the cart was shipped to Arizona in stealth mode, disassembled for the trip and hidden by layers of draping.
Phoenix's Raven Club shut down for the day, keeping snooping cell phones from snapping pictures, and Percelay worked his video magic. BW1 was the star of the show, with Watson and Fitzgerald in supporting roles. Percelay's videos often star real-life props (like an iPad head, a voice-controlled popcorn machine, or an underwater nightclub.) The weird inventions create interest in the viewer, drawing them in as they first question the video's realness, then crave more information. Percelay says he doesn't ram brands down consumers' throats; it's about making the audience come to the video, rather than forcing the video upon viewers. In the Bubba’s Hover video, Oakley's branding decorates the hover-cart. Otherwise, it's hardly mentioned. Yet in the majority of media posts celebrating the invention, Oakley and Watson are mentioned as the geniuses behind the flying vehicle.
The golf cart hovercraft was never intended to be more than a prop, but there's now reason to believe it could become a golf club staple. It's been less than a week since the video was published, and Fitzgerald's company has been flooded with BW1 orders. "We're trying to put together an emergency management team now," he says, noting the company's small structure. "We're in a tsunami. Beware of what you dream of," he laughs. Currently, the BW1 is a concept -- a prototype -- and it will take several months to improve the design and bring it to market. That said, the interest Fitzgerald has received from club owners is real -- and many of them are ready to pay up. Typical hovercrafts cost about $20,000. Since the BW1 has many additional features, including a noise-reduction engine fan, it would currently sell at about $50,000. With time, Fitzgerald believes customers can purchase the golf cart model at the price of a small speedboat.
Clubs' general managers are excited about hovercraft golf carts, but question their practicality. Merion Golf Club's head pro, Scott Nye, sent the Bubba's Hover link to Saucon Valley Country Club General Manager Gene Mattare, asking for his opinion on it. Mattare's immediate response? "Pretty neat."
But, once the novelty wears off, the real questions have to be asked: What's the noise level? Is it run by gas or electric? Would an older member have a difficult time getting in? How well does it scale a steep incline? What are the operational costs? What storage space is needed? Mattare says the test period would be similar to that of other cart models, with a few more areas to look at. Questions aside, his interest doesn't seem like it will fade anytime soon: "Leave it to Bubba to pair with Oakley; they're pretty edgy. Anything you can do to bring more people into golf, like creating new equipment, well that's pretty good for the game."
Bubba's Hover can transition from prop to real-life golf cart if Neoteric's infrastructure receives the appropriate support -- and Oakley may be up for that challenge. Though the company is known for its eyewear and apparel, Strange confirms that discussions about this new hovercraft business are happening. "If opportunity is there, and we're creating a need for [hovercraft golf carts], it's definitely something we'll take a hard look at to see if it fits our business model," he says. Revolutionizing golf transportation was never in the cards for Oakley -- or Neoteric. With the help of YouTube, it now may be. The actual building of the carts is step one, followed by the implementation of hovercraft training at clubs. (It's like flying a small airplane, and weight balance is hugely important.)
Regardless of the companies' future plans, Oakley's initial wish came true. Just days before the Masters, its brand currently spatters every sports blog -- and there's no denying that Watson and Oakley are the coolest golf duo around.
Watch the viral video: Bubba’s Hover