In January 2014, Wes and George Bryan were driving home to Columbia, S.C., from Orlando, where they had auditioned for The Big Break, when Wes happened upon a video on YouTube of a golfer throwing his ball in the air and smashing it before it touched the ground. “Dude, that’s sick,” George enthused.
“I can do that,” Wes said.
That afternoon these down-on-their-luck, wannabe touring pros filmed their own version and uploaded it to YouTube and promoted it on Twitter. When it reached 100 views, they decided to do another video. One thing led to another and Bryan Bros. Golf became a mini-empire, flooding various social media channels with trick-shots videos. Deals with Callaway, Lexus, Bose, GoPro and other big-time brands poured in. It was one night in particular, at the PGA Show in Orlando in January 2015, when the magnitude of the moment hit George, who slumped on a couch and muttered, “I can’t believe this is real.”
Watching over Bryan Bros. was a college friend of theirs from University of South Carolina named Joe Gilliland, who carried the weighty title of CEO, though he had his skeptics. “I left a good job in finance,” he says, “and my parents were baffled. My mom was continuously saying to my dad, ‘How is this a real job?’”
Growing up in Kansas City, Garrett Clark was an ardent fan of the Bryan Bros. From the age of nine he had his own YouTube channel featuring him “just doing stupid stuff around the house,” he says. “My childhood dream was to be a YouTuber.” The financial success of Bryan Bros. allowed Wes and George to focus on their dreams of reaching the PGA Tour, and when George came to Kansas City for a Web.com event, Garrett sought him out. (Wes reached the PGA Tour in 2016 and won at Hilton Head the following year.) Garrett didn’t ask anything about golf, focusing on more important matters. “I had a ton of questions about social media and how they built their brand,” he says.
Garrett was an accomplished junior golfer, a gifted scrambler who once won a tournament by shooting a closing 68 despite hitting only two fairways. He spent all of December 2016 practicing trick shots of his own and began uploading them to Instagram. The ensuing summer he didn’t play dozens of junior tournaments, as he always had, focusing instead on creating fun videos. His Instagram audience began to build. Garrett matriculated to Kansas Community College to play for the golf team but felt stifled; his content creation went fallow because so much time was spent on trivial things like academics and team practice.
In the summer of 2019, following his freshman year, Garrett plunged back into YouTube, focusing on longer-form videos. In one charming half-hour tale, Garrett went to a thrift store, bought a golf bag and set of irons for the grand total of $3.81 and then went out and played nine holes in four over par. The production quality of the videos is simple but clean, with occasional surprising touches, but the key is Garrett himself: a good-looking kid with a sweet swing and slightly goofy presence who, crucially, never appears to be trying too hard.
By the end of the summer Garrett’s GM Golf feed on YouTube had 150,000 subscribers. Money was coming in thanks to the magic of the YouTube algorithm, which embeds advertisements into every video and pays the creators depending on how many people suffer through the ads, and for how long. Midway through the summer Garrett worked up the courage to tell his father Jerry, a no-nonsense financial adviser, that he wanted to drop out of college and focus full-time on content creation.
I threw out the biggest number I could think of: $60,000. If he made that, I would be a believer.
“It was World War III,” Jerry says. “I knew there was some value embedded in what Garrett was doing but it also looked a lot like an 18-year-old kid sitting on the couch playing on a computer.” The argument stretched for days and finally Jerry said he would give his son his blessing only if Garrett could prove that making YouTube videos was a viable career. Says Jerry: “I threw out the biggest number I could think of: $60,000. If he made that, I would be a believer. Well, he made that in a heartbeat. I said, ‘Son, you need to drop out of school immediately because you’ve got lightning in a bottle right now. College can wait.’”
GM Golf now has more than 200,000 subscribers and more than 33 million views. Garrett’s two accounts on Instagram have more than 230,000 followers. With an audience this vast, advertisers and endorsement partners have come calling, targeting the youthful viewership. “Dollar Shave Club did a deal with Garrett even though he only shaves about once a month,” Jerry says with a chuckle. GM Golf is active on Instagram but that is merely a brand builder and a way to funnel viewers to YouTube. “YouTube is where the money is,” says Gilliland, who became Garrett’s agent earlier this year.
A typical video is 30 to 40 minutes featuring Garrett and regulars like his cousin Micah Morris and friends Stephen Castaneda and Matt Scharff. (Each has his own thriving YouTube channel.) They might have a traditional match or ornate game of H-O-R-S-E or play a round with only one club or all of their clubheads wrapped in 100 layers of duct tape. Garrett is often dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt and cap on backward. There is no profanity. (“We’re big on safeguarding the brand,” Jerry says. “Racy content might get you views in the short-term but it costs you partnerships.”)
What’s striking about the videos (which are embedded with seven or eight ads, ka-ching, ka-ching) is what they aren’t: no exotic destinations, no drone footage, no big-money bets, minimal pizzazz. It’s just a group of likable kids playing golf at a high level and having a good time. Asked why he thinks the videos resonate, Garrett says, “All we’re trying to do is have fun, stay true to ourselves, make the kind of content we enjoy and remain authentic.”
Along the way, Garrett’s impact continues to grow. In mid-March he and seven friends met up at Pursell Farms in Sylacauga, Ala., for a buddies trip (with a camera crew in tow, obviously). When the world ground to a halt because of the coronavirus, Garrett and his pals hunkered down at Pursell Farms with the blessing of the resort. They started blasting out videos at a furious pace, suddenly putting a sleepy destination on the map.
CEO David Pursell says that the day the first video dropped he fielded 15 different inquiries about would-be bachelor parties. “People have continued calling in, showing up to the course looking to catch a glimpse of the guys filming, booking times to stay in the summer and fall, and reaching out for all kinds of inquiries,” Pursell says. “It’s been fun to see that and continue to see the power of our story grow.” Pursell Farms is now considering building special on-site lodging for Garrett and other such content creators to become regular presences around the resort.
Among those who have been monitoring Garrett’s rise are the Bryan Bros. With professional golf on hiatus Wesley and George have been holed up in South Carolina creating content that looks a lot like GM Golf. The Bryans are playing weekly matches and filming instructional pieces, which they upload to YouTube, and otherwise retrenching. “It’s becoming what we always wanted it to be: a fun golf brand, not just trick shots,” George says. “We always thought of ourselves as much more than trick-shot artists but we got to that space first and it defined us pretty quickly.”
The Bryans’ weekly matches have become a hit in these golf-starved times and they’re now up to 47,000 YouTube subscribers. “I really questioned if people would watch half an hour of a golf match when there’s nothing at stake,” George says. “Turns out the answer is yes. There are a lot of people out there who just love golf, and if the people on screen are having fun, the audience will find you.” Both Bryan brothers suddenly seem more relaxed on camera, which George ascribes to having studied Garrett: “He’s a fun, quirky individual. He’s very relatable. If he messes up when he’s talking, he just laughs about it and moves on. I’ve always tried to be too perfect on-camera. Now I’m just trying to be myself.”
George recently filmed a match against Garrett and Micah. Off-camera, they talked a lot of shop. “I asked Garrett a bunch of questions about YouTube,” George says. “Funny how it’s flipped. Now I’m the one coming to him for advice.”