How Paige Spiranac took a life she never wanted and turned it into golf’s largest social media empire.
Photographs by Caroline Tompkins
Crammed into the back corner of a WeWork high-rise in New York’s financial district, the PointsBet sportsbook studio feels as stifling as a sweat lodge. Various producers scurry to and fro, fanning themselves with folded papers and chugging water, but golfer-turned-social-media-juggernaut Paige Spiranac gives no indication that she minds the heat.
Dressed in a form-fitting black tank, black-leather mini and knee-high boots, she takes her assigned place on the couch, delicately positioning her long hair across her shoulders like a mink stole. Minutes later, as the cameras roll, Spiranac offers her picks for the upcoming Masters, bantering effortlessly with the host like she’s on “The Tonight Show”. Her enunciation is unabashedly girly and punctuated with ample laughs, as Spiranac drops deep sports knowledge with a side of cheek, her years of golf experience trojan-horsed inside bouncy Malibu Barbie drag.
The host wraps the segment, reminding the audience that “blondes have more fun,” and filming cuts. Spiranac stays put to fire off a few PointsBet social media posts, answering questions about the Augusta National menu – “I love soup. Soup is so underrated” – pausing only to adjust the swoop of her bangs or tug discreetly at her hemline. Back in the green room, Spiranac drapes her coat across her lap while the PointsBet senior vice-president of content, Liam Roecklein, reviews her performance and thanks her for being the company’s “shining star” since she came on as a stakeholder in 2021. “You’re picking longshots and getting them right,” he admires, sweating slightly through his shirt.
Spiranac graciously accepts the praise, adding that she has some ideas about how to improve the graphics package, which she sketches on a Post-it. Due at her next appointment, Spiranac says her thank yous and goodbyes, then exits stage left, striding swiftly down the hall as a chorus of producers call behind her that she should feel free to stop by the studio any time – any time at all.
By every measure, Paige Spiranac, 30, is the definition of shiny, modern TikTok-era success. She boasts more than 11 million followers across her social media channels, 3.7 million solely on Instagram – figures that outperform the totals of every other golfer, with Tiger Woods in second place. She’s in what her boyfriend labels a “legit category of fame”. They go places, and “people know who she is”. When she dines out, chefs send complimentary dishes to the table. When she shops, onlookers sneak pictures of her with their phones. New acquaintances ask her to tag them in posts so they can draft off her celebrity. In 2018, Spiranac was featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Last year, she was named Maxim’s “Sexiest Woman Alive”.
Spiranac’s swelling popularity reflects not simply her (considerable) sex appeal but the way she chooses to deploy it. She punctuates her carnality with wit, pairs her enviable cleavage with solid golf technique and combines her astute commentary with ball jokes. “My content,” she explains succinctly, “is meant to be fun.” She’s like Ty Webb in “Caddyshack” if Ty Webb made other Ty Webbs weak in the knees.
“I created this alter ego where I show the most silly, exaggerated version of myself,” Spiranac says, emphasising that online Paige is not everyday Paige. (For example, her off-line clothes are adult-sized and include no small number of sweatpants.) She’s a provocative show pony, sure, but she’s also self-aware, politically conscious and, most crucially, in on the joke. This is not a new tack: see Mae West, Dolly Parton, Goldie Hawn, Cardi B, the entirety of Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods canon. Like them, Spiranac is a lolly wrapper around a protein bar, a Twinkie stuffed with vitamins.
“She’s so intelligent in how she speaks about the game,” says Cassandra Bausch, Club Champion’s director of marketing. Spiranac can get into the weeds of stats, form, equipment, turf impact and player history and never come off as a snob or a bore. “Some of these bigger names, their content isn’t as engaging. Paige not only understands how to work the camera, how to present her body, how to smile, she also knows how to play golf, and she’s really freaking good at it,” Bausch adds. “You don’t feel like she’s speaking down to you.”
The combination has proved fruitful for Spiranac and her many brand partnerships, which include Shot Scope, Club Champion, Swag, X-Golf and LA Golf. She’s crushing it in what in the old days would have been known as “Q Score” but now consists of monitoring every click and view, as well as subsequent actions and reactions.
In the three months to June, her videos were viewed 55 million times. Women make up 6 percent of her fans, and the rest are men between 25 and 55, mostly from the golf sphere, but her mainstream audience is steadily climbing. She’s searched more frequently than any current PGA Tour or LPGA Tour pro. “She has enormous reach,” says Bausch, who signed Spiranac in 2020 after noticing that Club Champion didn’t have any women on its NIL roster. “As you can imagine, she wasn’t the person that our executive team thought of first.” Bausch presented Spiranac’s metrics, and the powers that be agreed to a one-year trial. Now she’s their lead ambassador and most lucrative contract.
“When she posts, we see it immediately in web traffic,” says Pat Duncan, Club Champion’s vice-president of marketing. According to Duncan, Spiranac is directly responsible for thousands of club fittings and more than seven figures in sales. “There’s not a lot of people, particularly in the golf space, that can do that. She’s a unicorn.”
Spiranac admits to “obsessing like an athlete” when it comes to keeping her algorithms popping. She studies when to post, how often and where. She knows the length of videos that perform best and on which platforms. She understands which colours read, which angles seduce, which captions galvanise. She knows that hits equal dollars and engagement converts to a long-term fanbase and that you catch more flies with honey, honey. She discerns down to the last eyelash and straining shirt button how to turn herself into golf’s Jessica Rabbit: not naughty, just memed that way.
Spiranac, her team emphasises, is a media company, not simply an influencer. Her recommendations drive sales. Her opinions generate headlines. Her clapbacks fuel news cycles. When you are your own highlight reel, there is no downtime. As such, Spiranac posts every day.
Depending on the needs of the brand, she will create Instagram stories, YouTube videos, Twitter posts or TikTok videos. She scripts, edits, lights and films herself, by herself – a process that takes hours. She does her own hair and make-up, shops for her wardrobe, works out five times a week minimum, likening it to an athlete keeping her body competition-ready. After she posts, she responds to comments, building rapport, boosting engagement, batting down trolls and deleting the inescapable dick pix. She also has a podcast.
“I’m always skirting the line of being overexposed and chronically online,” Spiranac acknowledges. “It’s a tightrope act.”
This year she launched OnlyPaige, a members-only subscription service riffing on OnlyFans. “We weren’t sure how it was going to do because there’s no nudity, and that’s what people were expecting, or at least hoping for,” Spiranac says of the site, which for $US10 a month offers golf tutorials, travel content and exclusive photos. “Once people sign up, they see the value in it, but like, yeah, there’s no nipples.”
Nipples or not, says her reps, OnlyPaige user growth has defied expectations. “The thing about Paige,” observes Bausch, “is she walks into a room, and it’s like time stops. People know her name, whether they’re golfers or not. She’s a trailblazer.” That’s a wild achievement, especially when you consider she never wanted to be.
From early on, Dan and Annette Spiranac knew their youngest daughter was acutely anxious. “She was always behind me, peering out from around my legs,” remembers Annette. “She never spoke.”
Instead, Spiranac spent hours by herself on the playground, swinging and flipping on the monkey bars. Dan and Annette thought maybe gymnastics would be a fit and enrolled her in a class at age 6. Spiranac excelled and was soon practising eight hours a day, six days a week. Former high-level athletes themselves (Dan was a gridiron free safety at the University of Pittsburgh when the team won a national championship; Annette danced ballet professionally), her parents decided to home-school Spiranac so she could train full time. The family moved from Denver to Colorado Springs to be closer to the facility.
“Gymnastics was my full identity,” Spiranac says. “Everyone knew me as ‘Paige the gymnast who was going to the Olympics’.”
But even at the gym, Spiranac still struggled to fit in socially. “I was a very weird kid,” she says flatly. “I wore glasses, rubber rain boots everywhere. I had this condition where my hair would fall out. I had bad asthma. When you’re bald and need an inhaler, it’s not easy. Kids would stand 10 feet away from me.” They also threw rocks. Teasing her became something of a hobby for her peers.
Spiranac remembers completing a floor pass and watching as her teammates secretly spat into her drink. When she brought in birthday cake, the other girls threw it in the garbage in front of her. “Looking back, obviously that’s juvenile and stupid, but when you’re 9…” her voice trails off.
Spiranac persisted, winning meets and interest from A-list coaches until a fractured kneecap set her back. A second fracture ended her Olympic dream for good. She was shattered. “All I wanted was to be a professional athlete,” Spiranac says, “to find something that I could be good at.” Her older sister, Lexie, was on her way to becoming a heptathlete at Stanford. Annette phoned sport psychologist Jim Loehr, who advised her that the most critical piece of athletic success was to match the child’s personality to the sport. Enter golf. Thirteen-year-old Spiranac fell in love from the first swing. “Most kids already had 50 trophies by her age,” Annette says. To catch up, Annette and Paige decamped to Arizona so that Spiranac could train through every season, which she did, all day, every day, until college. “There were no proms, no football games, none of it,” Spiranac says.
Instead, there were victories. Spiranac became a top college recruit. When she was accepted to the University of Arizona on a golf scholarship, she found herself ill-prepared for the transition. She had been “in this protected bubble”, never had a drink or a boyfriend. She felt like Sandra Dee at the orgy.
Spiranac transferred to San Diego State after her sophomore autumn term, where she developed her game. She became team captain and saw multiple tournament successes, culminating with the Aztecs winning their first Mountain West Conference Championship. But behind the scenes, Spiranac’s mental health was at an ebb.
The social anxiety she had weathered as a child had never gone away. A doctor prescribed anti-depressants, which Spiranac reacted badly to. Entering her senior year, she became too anxious to leave her apartment to grocery shop or dine out. Being seen felt like an excruciating impossibility. She developed an eating disorder. “I didn’t want to interact with anyone,” she says. Instead, she self-isolated, subsisting on crackers she squirrelled away in her room.
During golf practices, her coach warned Spiranac that she was too hard on herself and gave her drills designed to free her mind. Any mistake she made, “affected Paige so deeply,” Annette says. “It affected how she saw herself as a person.”
About this time, in July 2015, Dan Regester, a blogger for the men’s online bro community “Total Frat Move”, stumbled on photos of Spiranac and decided to single her out for her hotness on their popular social accounts. “In that moment, my life completely switched,” Spiranac says.
After dubbing Spiranac a “smokeshow golfer,” Regester’s post continued: “When staring at ass and titties on a daily basis becomes a burden, what else does a guy really have to live for?… So yeah, your boy was having a rough go at it, mentally. That was until this little biscuit walked into my life.” So it went, Regester extolling Spiranac’s physical virtues, entreating her to run away with him.
“Paige was playing a practice round,” Annette recalls, “and she goes, ‘Mum? I’m getting all these messages.’ It wasn’t until she got home that she started looking at her phone, and it was like a ticker.”
Spiranac’s Instagram rose from 500 to 100,000 followers in a matter of hours. After that, Annette says, “She started to get nervous. It was overwhelming. Now, another child might be like, ‘Oh, wow! This is so cool.’ Not Paige. People don’t understand how unbelievably hard this was on her. It was traumatic for our entire family.”
Spiranac found herself bawling on the floor in the fetal position. Annette and Dan felt helpless, consumed with fear about their daughter’s mental health and what the online chatter would do to her self-esteem. Spiranac was only 22, at the beginning of what she hoped would be a long professional golf career, and she was already getting blowback from the community for stealing the spotlight from “LPGA players who ‘deserved’ the recognition”.
“They said it was because I was playing golf in these quote, unquote, ‘provocative outfits’,” Spiranac says.
“We both lived in leotards,” explains Annette. “Paige was in gymnastics. Then you switch to golf and it is taboo to show your physique? That was strange.”
Strange, too, that her daughter’s body had simultaneously become both an object of rampant internet lust and a shame magnet, a global example of how to be and not to be.
Spiranac insists she was never “trying to ruffle any feathers or offend anyone”. She dressed the way she dressed and was built the way she was built. She could hardly be blamed for a viral post she didn’t make or know anything about – except that’s exactly what happened.
Like a social media snowball, her exposure grew and took on a momentum and meaning of its own. Once unleashed, the haters never stopped hating. Spiranac received direct messages from players calling her a bad role model, scolding her for “ruining the game”.
“Paige still wanted to compete professionally,” Annette says. She accepted an invitation to play a Ladies European Tour tournament in Dubai in December 2015. It would prove to be the beginning of the end.
“From the start, it was a massive controversy I was there,” Spiranac recalls. “There were pros, legends of the game, discussing if I belonged. People were taking bets about whether I would come in last. I’m this kid who has no experience, no media training. I completely bombed, publicly cried about it. It was a s–t show.”
Spiranac shot 77-79 to finish 101st out of 107 players, but she also ushered in record-breaking coverage – 500 million impressions on social media and the largest broadcast viewership ever for a Ladies European Tour event. A reluctant star had been born.
A gratis starter has already arrived by the time Spiranac orders the deviled eggs and baked cod for dinner at a trendy French bistro on the Lower East Side. She thanks the waiter profusely, samples a delicate bite, nods in appreciation.
As he hurries away, Spiranac raises a glass to toast, then cuts to the chase. “I failed at golf,” she says crisply, taking a drink.
In her telling, she dedicated much of her young life to earning her LPGA Tour card. When she couldn’t see it through, the disappointment pulled her under like a riptide. She went to therapy to resolve her trauma of “not being good enough”, of letting everyone down. She felt she owed her parents. They had sacrificed so much. She felt broken.
Spiranac beseeched her therapist to fix her, telling her, “I don’t want to feel anxious anymore.” Her therapist answered, as therapists often do, with a question: “What do you think the biggest driving force in your career has been?” Spiranac widens her eyes and tilts her head, reliving the epiphany. “She showed me my anxiety is my superpower,” she says.
Spiranac says after that she began to embrace who she was instead of longing for who she thought she would be. She acknowledged what happened to her was bizarre and unfair but also that it was her choice what to do next. Spiranac, as the kids say, chose violence. “I finally just said, Screw this. I changed my mentality.”
“This was so far out of left field. Never in a million years did we imagine Paige would do what she’s doing,” Annette says. “She hit a turning point where she was like, ‘I’m going to do this my way.’”
Spiranac decided: to hell with respectability politics. Just because she couldn’t be a pro golfer didn’t mean she would allow her critics to drive her from the sport she loved. She also needed a new way to earn a living.
She points to her March 2021 Masters towel post as “the first time I was fully unapologetic”. Braless under an open kelly green jacket, she reprinted a comment, “No one will ever take you seriously if you keep posting pictures with cleavage,” followed by her own: “So here’s to continuing doing what I want. I made some towels with this image… to buy or for the haters to dry their tears with.”
She made more than $US100,000 just like that. The post had 338,000 likes, 11,000 comments. She had never monetised her image before. From then on, Spiranac leaned full-tilt into her sex appeal, racking up more sponsors and partnerships – a heightened visibility that only further inflamed the traditional golf base. The difference was this time she cared less – a lot less.
She swallows a drink of water and remembers a day, back when she was still in the business of trying to please the pearl-clutchers, when she posted a photo of herself dressed in a turtleneck and black pants, only her wrists exposed. Beneath the photo, commenters labelled her a “slut” and a “whore”.
“I believed maybe if I took myself seriously, other people would, too,” she says with a sigh, “and that just wasn’t ever the case.”
In the eight years since, Spiranac has grown herself into a self-run, multi-million-dollar empire, far more than she might have earned playing professionally. “It’s been powerful to walk into a room knowing the platform I’ve built and the influence I have, and it’s not just because of my body; it’s my brain, who I am as a person, the whole package. I never wanted to be an influencer. Now I’ve become so influential they can’t ignore me.”
“Basically,” she says, setting down her fork and breaking into a gleaming smile, “my career has become a ‘F–k you’ to everyone.”
It’s the end of another busy week, and Spiranac is spent. She answers the door dressed in baggy sweats, feet bare. Her manicure is fresh, a smiley face painted on her middle finger.
The two-storey apartment is a study in soothing creams and whites with cozy throws and fluffy pillows, faux furs and pristine white sheepskin rugs, low-slung couches and a gleaming marble island, all bathed in natural light. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are packed with books, alongside a few hung photo collages, a box of pink roses and a Peloton. Everything is spare and clean and calming.
Sinking comfortably into an easy chair, Spiranac reflects on what she wants now: to continue to build her online community, to break down the unspoken rules of golf, to make the sport more welcoming. She calls herself the “ambassador for the misfits”, those who don’t vibe with country clubs or own slacks or a polo, everyday people who want to play a chill nine holes and knock back a hotdog and cold beer with their friends.
“At the end of the day, most people will never get to play Pebble Beach or Augusta National,” she says. “We should bring golf down a couple of notches, make it approachable for people who don’t have endless income to spend on a hobby.” Spiranac has no illusions; she has gathered from experience what she’s up against. “It’s really hard to change golf.”
Her thoughts turn to former player and commentator Holly Sonders, who is launching a topless women’s sports league, an enterprise Spiranac has zero beef with. “I don’t think people realise the amount of s–t that Holly had to deal with over her career, people constantly critiquing her, her appearance. Her sports league, whether you like it or not, is going to be a huge revenue driver, so good for Holly.”
Spiranac’s own physique remains a robust topic of discussion online. She says she has gained about 14 kilograms since she became an influencer. “I did a video and had a bit of cellulite on the back of my thighs, and no one let me live it down,” she says. She’s trying to maintain a healthy relationship with her body, a task that in her profession seems akin to trying to erect a house of cards in a wind tunnel.
When asked why she thinks so many people still waste time leaving hateful comments, Spiranac rolls her eyes. “I have no idea,” she says. “I have been at the lowest lows in my life, been self-conscious and uncomfortable, hated the skin I was in, and I never once looked at someone online and was like, You know what, I’m going to knock them down.”
Spiranac tells a story about sitting on a flight next to a cheery, middle-aged woman. She had a massive iPad open, and Spiranac watched as this straight-from-central-casting-Melissa-McCarthy type proceeded to leave hate comment after hate comment beneath various posts. One was a fashion influencer, another a rapper and a third was a blog about a dog. “She hated on a dog,” Spiranac says, incredulous.
After the woman pressed send on her vitriol, she closed the windows and began making Valentine’s Day cards for her grandchildren.
“It put everything in perspective,” Spiranac says, noting how little the airplane troll considered the harm she had done, that she didn’t even seem to enjoy it. “I was like, Oooh, none of this matters.”
Since then, Spiranac doesn’t let the negativity take root. Instead, she contemplates the future. Sands shift quickly in the social media business, and Spiranac is smart enough to recognise that what works now may not carry the day as she gets older, maybe marries, starts a family. She wants to write a children’s book about being a female golfer. She thinks she would make a great talk-show host. “People don’t think I can string a sentence together. They look at one post, and it’s me standing there with my tits out, and they assume ‘She has no substance’.”
For those who might underestimate her, she namechecks Jessica Alba, a one-time “vixen” who founded a company that produces organic baby products and had $US314 million in sales last year, and Tyra Banks, a Victoria’s Secret lingerie model who went on to have a talk show and her own media empire. “The list goes on and on,” Spiranac says with a touch of exasperation around the folks who fault her, critique her flavour of feminism. “What I produce is not that provocative. If my body makes someone uncomfortable, that’s not my problem. I’m not doing anything illegal. I’m not causing harm.” She says she thinks a lot about why it’s often other women who judge her most harshly.
“Maybe it is because I come off as every guy’s fantasy – a girl that loves golf and wears a bikini – but I see myself as a girl’s girl. I’m coming from an authentic place.”
Spiranac inhales deeply, says the static she gets is not so different from a version of what happens to all women, so-called saints and sinners alike. “They put us in a box, and then they get mad when we get out.”
At dinner the night before, Spiranac allowed herself, just for a moment, to visualise quitting. “I could delete my social media forever,” she fantasised, taking a small sip of champagne, “delete it all and ride off into the sunset.”
She was confident she could live without the attention, the sponsorships, the money, the high-maintenance hoo-ha. What she would miss is the fun. “I love what I do because it’s so ridiculous,” she said, popping a bite of beignet into her mouth, her lipstick miraculously unsmudged, her hair a spill of shining waves washing over her collarbone.
“I want to make people happy. Basically, I want to be a breath of fresh air within this timeline of s–t.”
Then she laughed, buoyed that her purpose, for the time being, was clear.