Golf | 17 Feb 2017 | By Michael Vlismas
Golf is playing for change
Apparently, young people are just not that into golf. Millennials, we are told, have better things to devote their Twittering attentions to. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it.
Golf just needs to figure out what aspects of it millennials are into. There was a time we were told that the youth of today don’t read books anymore. And then that wizard boy made us all eat our pointy hats.
Young Tom Morris certainly liked the game. He was arguably golf’s original young gun. He won four Opens before he was 21 years old. And what is the enduring image of the Tiger Woods era? It’s photographs or video clips of four-year-olds all over the world swinging golf clubs and being touted as the next big thing.
So golf does have something in it that attracts a younger audience.
Granted, a game that is roughly 500 years old does tend to move slowly through the generational comings and goings of what’s hot and what’s not.
But there is certainly some exciting innovation at the moment, which is a good thing.
Youth, Cellphones and Golf
In 2011, golf rolled up its pants and climbed into the digital water hazard to figure out how best to play the issue of cell phones. It was a tentative attempt at first, and fans were told you can bring your phone to certain PGA Tour events, but you had to keep them on silent and could use them only in designated areas.
At the time, some people in golf gasped at the disruption this would cause. Professionals known to verbally abuse photographers for clicking on their backswings would launch into full revolt mode, we were told.
Hands up anybody who expects to go to a golf tournament today and not be allowed to take your phone onto the course with you? Except those traveling to the Masters of course. Augusta National still has a policy where even journalists have to hand in their phones before leaving the media centre for the golf course.
At the 2016 Nedbank Golf Challenge, cellphones weren’t tolerated – they were encouraged to the full. The new Nedbank Golf Challenge App incentivised fans to take their phones onto the course with them and check into various points to redeem rewards. An entire cutting-edge digital campaign designed to enhance the fans’ experience could only mean something if you had your cellphone with you at this golf tournament.
Golf Moving with the Times
Last year, the European Tour allowed professionals to wear shorts during practice and pro-am rounds. The traditionalists burnt their khaki longs in disgust. A year later, we hardly notice it anymore.
The Waste Management Phoenix Open has become more than a golf tournament. It’s a show. The 16th is said to attract 16 000 people alone to the grandstands that have turned this into golf’s craziest amphitheatre. That’s more people than you get in stadiums at some South African Super Rugby matches.
Yes, it gets messy at times and you have your overly rowdy and drunk fans. But generally, it’s fun. These have been some of the steps golf has taken recently to make itself more accessible, more appealing and perhaps more innovative in a rapidly evolving society.
Now comes the European Tour’s latest innovation – the ISPS Handa World Super 6 Perth, a tournament with two cuts and two formats in one week. A three-day stroke play qualifier for a Sunday match play shootout. It’s part of a drive to find new and exciting formats in the game that can attract a wider audience.
Locally, South African golf has had some great initiatives to enhance our tournaments.
At our major European Tour events we’ve had fans being able to win the chance to walk inside the ropes with the marquis groups as Honorary Observers.
We’ve had competitions in our pro-ams where fans could win the chance to tee it up against the professionals. We’ve taken our Sunshine Tour golfers to major airports and had them hold putting competitions with the public at the rental car depots, or even in major malls.
And all of this is befitting a game that is so way ahead of the curve when it comes to the advances it makes in all other areas, but somehow is still trying to find its sweet spot when it comes to meeting the needs of an evolving audience.
Look at golf technology. This has advanced at such a rapid rate in terms of equipment design that the rest of the game is quite literally moving earth to catch up.
Golf courses are being redesigned, rightly or wrongly, to keep pace with how far the modern golfer hits the ball. You don’t see cricket ovals being built bigger to accommodate better batting technology, or football goal posts being made smaller because strikers are getting better with footballs that bend it like Beckham wished he could. But golf keeps evolving.
Evolve or Dissolve
So why shouldn’t it evolve in terms of how it speaks to its audience? And why shouldn’t it take pride in appealing to people who aren’t golfers and never will be?
If people are only interested in Rickie Fowler because they like the kit he wears, what’s wrong with that and why can’t golf use this to its benefit? Golf will always have its traditional 72-hole stroke play events, and it will always have its Majors that demand a certain level of peak performance and decorum. But for the rest, why isn’t there room to have a bit of fun?
For quite some time now golf has been watching cricket’s IPL and rugby’s Sevens and thinking, “How do we get some of this in our sport?” Fireworks on the first tee? Walk-on music for the players? Believe me, it’s being talked about and it’s coming.
The has certainly set a high standard of this in terms of how it’s engaging fans and even non-golf fans on social media. In an interview with Alan Shipnuck on Golf.com, European Tour commissioner Keith Pelley said, “People are consuming content completely different than they ever did before. And that includes our game. And we need to be prepared to change with the times”. And he also added, “We’re in the entertainment-content business where golf is but our platform”.
I think golf is more than ready for this, and so are the fans.
What the Open did by bringing in its Open Championship Camping Village for free camping accommodation close to the championship venue was a fantastic move.
Suddenly, dad takes his young boys to the golf with him and combines it with a bit of camping. Or a few mates go to the golf, some of whom couldn’t care two Taylor Swifts about the game itself but actually quite like the idea of hanging out in a campsite and having a bit of fun for the weekend. That’s how you grow the game of golf.
There are also more than enough good people in this game at the Royal and Ancient, the United States Golf Association and at the hundreds of golf bodies around the world to ensure that this drive towards innovation doesn’t get completely silly. No doubt there will be some mistakes made. Cellphones will ring on backswings. People will get drunk and disorderly at the Phoenix Open. John Daly will miss his tee-off time after living it up in the Open Championship Camping Village.
But overall, finding better ways to talk to people outside of golf is the way forward for the game. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that you arrived at the first tee dressed only in various shades of khaki. Today, it’s not just the German tourists wearing green shorts and pink golf shirts out there. In fact, how many people who don’t even play golf love to wear golf apparel?
A few years ago a leading PGA professional at one of the biggest golf clubs in America told me he has started allowing his members to wear jeans in certain areas of the clubhouse.
And as Mike Leemhuis, a highly respected club manager in America, points out, “A family friendly atmosphere is one of the most important trends driving private club growth in America at present”.
Looking at this new tournament format by the European Tour, there was no greater indication for me of its success than the phone call I received this week.
It was from a family member. He wanted to know what I thought of this new format, because he had a few thoughts of his own on the matter.
And the great thing is, he doesn’t follow golf.