FEATURE - ‘My two biggest passions in school were PE and drama – I've just blended them into a job’

FEATURE - ‘My two biggest passions in school were PE and drama – I've just blended them into a job’

11/08/2022

Golf Business Quarterly speaks to PGA Professional and online influencer Rick Shiels about his amazing rise to fame as one of the biggest golf 'YouTuber's on the planet!

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Few could have predicted how Rick Shiels’ career would play out when he began a Golf Studies course at the age of 16. He explains how he made the transition from a north-west teaching pro to being one of the most influential voices and most-watched faces in the game.

The only reason Rick Shiels started up a YouTube channel was because he had written to every golf magazine asking whether he could feature in them and, of the few replies that he received, the answer was a collective no.

So, on May 9, 2012 Shiels posted a 47-second video of his swing from above in a bid to try and get a bit more noticed. Fast forward 10 years and his latest video is of him playing the Old Course at St Andrews backwards with five-time champion Tom Watson. Playing the Old Course in reverse would be in the top three of most golfers’ bucket lists, but to do it with Watson goes into the realms of a particularly vivid dream.

Shiels has a mind-blowing 2.16m YouTube subscribers and he is as influential as any golf pro in the game. He’s now been on the cover of those golf magazines and his YouTube videos alone have had over half a billion views.

“When I was 25 I thought that I had a lot to offer as an up-and-coming pro,” Shiels explains. “Obviously now I realise that I didn’t have any pedigree or much to offer other than being younger than most of the pros in those magazines.

“A few years later three or four of those magazines messaged me, asking me to feature in their magazines as my presence started to be felt. The editor of Golf Monthly, Mike Harris, was very early to message me and say that he loved what I was doing and I always really appreciated that and so I’ve ended up working with them.”

The early days

Shiles, now 35, first got into golf at Douglas Valley driving range – now brilliantly renamed to Chilli Dip – in Bolton and the then-10-year-old was left to his own devices to fill his mum’s hour-long lesson time. It was the usual story of frustration mixed with the very odd decent shot. It was enough to see him come back for another go and the bug soon set in.

“I wanted to be a pro when I realised that I didn’t want to do another job,” he says. “When I was about 14 I had absolutely fallen in love with golf, I wanted to play every minute of every day and I didn’t see a future past that and, unlike other sports like football where that dream soon gets chopped down at a very early age, in golf it never really gets chopped down.”

Shiels would join Hart Common in Bolton where Gareth Benson, who is now based at Hillside, was the professional and those salad days set everything in place for where we are today.

“Rick was quite a vibrant character who was a good player,” remembers Benson.

“You probably didn’t think at 14 that he would go on to work in the industry but you never really know at that age. It was a new club, with a nice junior section, and we had a good vibe down there. His mum was a member and a new golfer, it was the late 90s and the game was doing well and he was really into it.

“Since then he has worked his way up and he has really made the most of what he has and I have nothing but huge admiration for him. It’s very difficult to keep coming up with content and, as an independent, to generate such huge traction in this type of industry really is superb.”

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Aged 16, Shiels enrolled at Myerscough College to do a diploma in Golf Studies near Preston where he would live from Monday to Friday. It was there he met fellow YouTuber Peter Finch and also Steve Marr, who was one of the coaches at the college.

Marr has taught with the likes of the world-renowned Mike Bender in Florida, where he worked with Zach Johnson and Inbee Park, and Shiels was always quick to pick his brains on technique and the movements that pieced a golf swing together.

“Rick was always very inquisitive about technique and he worked very hard,” Marr, who has been the head pro at Withington for the past 19 years, explains. “From fairly early on he knew that tournament golf wasn’t going to be for him but he did really want to learn about the swing and I found that invigorating.

“You really want to help students like that. He was so enthusiastic and ready to learn and he was a bit of a sponge.

“I thought that he would become a really good coach, Rick’s very personable and he had the character to be chatty and make anyone feel comfortable.”

The social media era

There were six years as an assistant at The Mere, near Manchester, before Shiels moved to the Trafford Golf Centre. Here he would work 13-hour days, quickly and successfully expanding a small client base and it was here that he began to dip his toe in the social media waters.

There were moves, along with his good friend Finch under the guise of Quest Golf, to Lytham Golf Academy and then to Prairie Sports Village near Burnley as the eyeballs began to rocket.

The buzz word by now was ‘content’ and Shiels was creating bundles of it: equipment reviews, tips, course vlogs, collaborations with celebrities and tour stars, or just anything random that would capture the viewers’ imagination.

If there was a different angle then Shiels was producing it. His figures for each video were now up in the millions and he was leading the influencer way. 

Watch back Shiels’ early offerings and they are like night and day to what he now puts out. Where once they were functional, even educational, these days he’s a ball of energy.

You are engaged straightaway. He’s warm, chatty, self-deprecating and fun. There’s no ego and, whatever ‘it’ is, he just gets it. We all like to vote with our fingers these days and it’s no surprise that Shiels attracts such an audience.

“It’s fascinating that I had two main passions at school,” he explains. “PE and drama were the two subjects that I loved and the ones that I did best in. I’ve weirdly blended them into a job. I always loved drama, I wasn’t doing shows outside of school but I loved being in school plays so performing in front of people was always something that I always enjoyed.

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“When I started YouTube I wasn’t worried about being on camera, but others were and they were very different on camera. I’ve done it for such a long time that it does all feel quite natural.

“The only time that it feels different is when it’s a much bigger production but I will still be able to settle into it. You’re just looking down a lens and chatting. One of my early cameramen would always say to just pretend that I’m talking to him and that really helped me become a bit more natural and less robotic.”

A big part of Shiels’ charm is that none of this appears to have changed him. To make this interview take place it just required one direct email. There were no managers involved, and, when a follow-up chat was required, it had been sorted by the next day. Parts of the conversations were spent running through our favourite holes on our favourite courses and there was no clock-watching or cliched replies. His social media accounts all end in ‘PGA’ and being able to help golfers play better and enjoy the game as much as possible remains his biggest thrill.

“Even though I’m a YouTuber my heart is in coaching. I’ve always been proud to be a PGA member and always will be, it’s that nice stamp of approval that you’ve done the hard yards to get to where you are.

“I just wanted to be the best golf coach that I could be when I turned pro and I love that I can call myself a pro, put my golf shoes on every day, get to work in the world of golf and so many different doors have opened once I got into that PGA structure.

“Even if I didn’t hit the target of a playing pro I knew there were other options which was always exciting.”

The future

Shiels won’t be resting on his laurels. New and exciting ventures will keep popping up, he’ll continue to tee it up and give us a better understanding of the great and good of the game and, with 45 per cent of his audience now coming from the United States, we can expect his channel to keep going from strength to strength.

From being a one-man band, he now works alongside Guy Charnock, who is the co-host of his podcast and who helps with planning the next steps and putting together brand partnerships. There are also four editors and a personal assistant who are there to help keep driving things forward.

Shiels explains: “About five years ago I thought I had done everything, there were no more videos to make and no more subscribers to gain and, five years on, I’m having my best year so far and having more fun than I have ever had before.

“There are 63 million golfers in the world and we have two million subscribers so it’s only really just started. More and more people are coming over to YouTube and we could get it up to 10 or 20 million subscribers and we’ll still be making golf fun and entertaining.”

Rick on... the detail of retail

I've not worked in retail for a long time but everyone that I speak to in retail is having the time of their lives because of Covid oddly enough.

Obviously the biggest challenge is getting hardware and the component parts but online is huge these days as people want convenience. I buy most of my stuff online whenever it’s clothing or something that you don’t need an opinion on.

The biggest advantage that we have as a PGA organisation is that we have experts in the field that golfers can go to and we're unique in that. Wherever you are you can go and see your local PGA pro and get some amazing expertise to play better golf and get the right equipment – that isn't possible in many sports at all.

Rick on… the pros and cons of custom fitting

I don't think we've got the fitting world quite right. The driver is the closest that we have to perfection. Putter fittings are good but irons and wedge fittings can be less useful. Hitting a 7-iron off a mat isn’t golf and you rarely hit a full wedge shot off a fairway – a lot of your wedge shots are from bunkers or rough or with half swings and from undulating lies. There are limitations with costs but I do feel like the game could have evolved the fitting process.

I would always advocate a fitting but I still think people are intimidated by one and that we underestimate how much people buy second hand. I do think that plenty of us are still buying online and off the shelves and guessing our fittings. An improvement in the process could improve things.

I've had one ball fitting in my life. The benefit of balls is that they're not too big a cost to golfers and we'll try different ones. But if you were to open the bag of most club golfers, you would probably see a real mixture of balls – ones that they've found or been given in a corporate day or won in the twos sweep.

Rick on... his early influences

Gareth Benson gave me my first lesson at Hart Common in Bolton and I would always lean towards him if I needed any help. He portrayed this professional image and was very passionate about his job and he was always in Today’s Golfer and so that always stuck with me.

At Myerscough College, Steve Marr's knowledge of the swing was incredible and Rick Daniels, who was the head of golf, taught me so much about the career path possibilities and that playing on tour wasn't the only prospect for a PGA professional.

Peter Eyre was the head pro at The Mere and he taught me a lot about the customer service side of being a PGA professional, to always be friendly to the members and customers and how to deal with people. Natalie Adams was there too and she taught me the business side of golf coaching and opened my eyes to the possibility of making golf coaching a business. I then went to the Trafford Golf Centre and the director of golf, Pete Style, shaped not only how I perceived golf coaching as a business but also the skill of managing a busy teaching diary.

Rick on... his fellow influencers

From an online perspective Me and My Golf, Piers Ward and Andy Proudman, really opened my eyes to the possibilities on YouTube. They had a foot in the door of golf coaching on YouTube and took me under their wing quite early on, helped me develop and gave me a lot of good points when I was starting off and they didn’t have to do any of that which was nice.

I've done so much with Peter Finch since our college days and we've shared some incredible times and it would be unfair not to mention Mark Crossfield. He was the first pro who started YouTube golf to be honest and that really helped me realise the potential of having your own channel.

Rick by numbers:

2,300,000 YouTube subscribers
60,000,000 hours watched on his YouTube channel
539,558,262 page views on his YouTube channel
4,300,000 views of his most-watched video: ‘Cheating at golf with ILLEGAL clubs & ball!’
1,100,000 Facebook followers
617,000 Instagram followers
150,000 Twitter followers
1,900,000 likes on his TikTok channel

10 questions

What would you like to be when you grow up? Somebody who is respected.

What is your earliest golfing memory? Going to the range at 10, dragged there by my mum who was having a lesson, I didn’t want to be there, they stuck me in a bay for an hour and I didn’t like any bit of it until I hit one OK shot and then I quite liked it.

Jack or Tiger? Tiger.

What was the last book you read? How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie, I read it every year.

And the last film you watched? Encanto.

What is your biggest regret? Not working hard enough at school.

And your proudest moment? It’s a bit vain but probably hitting a million subscribers on YouTube.

What are your views on dress codes? I would like them to be more relaxed but I wouldn’t change what I wear, maybe a pair of black jeans but I would still want to put my golf clothes on. If it means more people getting into the game, then brilliant.

What’s your favourite golf course? Trump International in Aberdeen. I love it. There are so many fantastic holes. I’ve played some beautiful courses but I will always come back to that. It’s a modern course design on such a natural site.

What does your perfect weekend involve? A big lie in and the kids get in bed with us. Go out on the bikes, have some friends round in the evening and have a bit of a party. Then Sunday would be another chilled day, eat some bad food and enjoy spending more time with the family.

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