- Rule changes from R&A and USGA aim to speed up the game and make it more accessible
- European Tour’s GolfSixes format increases frequency of results
- Sponsor HSBC drives the need for change and youth participation
There’s an easy narrative about the game of golf that the sport finds difficult to shake. According to popular perception, the 18-hole game is a relic of a sleepier era that takes too long, is too difficult, too expensive and too stuffy to appeal to time-impoverished youngsters with short attention spans.
One of the leading players in the game, Rory McIlroy, channelled the sense of a malaise in the sport in an interview with the BBC in 2014 when he suggested that the authorities should try to find a way of speeding the game up at the grassroots level.
“People enjoy watching the game, but gone are the days that you could spend five or six hours on the course,” he said.
The interview coincided with a Sport England report that showed that the number of 16 to 25-year-olds playing the game regularly in one of the sport’s traditional heartlands had almost halved between 2009-10 and 2012-13. At the time, it was increasingly in vogue to describe the booming sport of cycling as the ‘new golf’ in the UK as hobbyists elected to ditch their golf clubs and Pringle sweaters in favour of road bikes and Castelli Lycra at the weekends.
Perhaps McIlroy protested too much, however, when suggested that there was nothing wrong with the professional game from which he earned such a good living, arguing that it was only the amateur side of the sport needed to change. “I don’t think they need to alter tournament-play formats,” he said. “I think that works very well. It’s the grassroots… definitely not our level.”
The need for change
Two years down the line and the Northern Irish golfer has been granted one of his wishes, while some of the sport’s administrators appear to have ignored his protestations that there is nothing wrong with the professional game.
At the beginning of March the R&A and USGA, which govern golf worldwide, unveiled a preview of the proposed new Rules of Golf, including provisions to speed up play and simplify the game so that it would not be so forbidding to newcomers. It was the first fundamental review of the laws of the game since 1984.
“Our aim is to make the rules easier to understand and to apply for all golfers. We have looked at every rule to try to find ways to make them more intuitive and straightforward and we believe we have identified many significant improvements,” explained David Rickman, the R&A’s executive director, governance, when the proposed changes were released.
But it was the announcement of a format change at the professional level that grabbed the most attention. At a similar time to the R&A’s announcement, Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s iconoclastic chief executive, unveiled GolfSixes, a six-hole format of the sport that would attempt to abbreviate and condense the entertainment for a TV audience and also recreate some of the atmosphere and passion of one of golf’s blue riband events, the Ryder Cup.
Under the new format, two-man teams from 16 different nations would be split into four groups of four – “similar to the Uefa Champions League,” according to the European Tour press release – before the top two teams from each group would progress to knockout rounds. Each round would be played in so-called greensomes format – also known as Scotch Foursomes – over six holes while Pelley promised amphitheatre-style stands, music and pyrotechnics on the tees and players fitted with microphones.
It was easy to imagine how the changes might not have been to the taste of some of the sport’s more conservative constituents which begged the question as to whether it was so easy to apply the IPL treatment to such a traditional sport as golf. It also raised questions about whether the game was laying waste to its traditions in its quest for a younger audience.
Pelley maintains that the GolfSixes format is grounded in research and does not attempt to butcher or take the place of the 72-hole tournament format.
“We ran our own studies recently and we found that the majority of our fans wanted to see more innovative formats introduced in golf. One of the key issues highlighted was a greater desire for instant gratification and to have a greater frequency of results,” he tells SportBusiness International. “We also ran workshops with our sponsors and broadcasters and one of the key things that they were calling for was format changes in order to provide new compelling stories to increase access to different audiences.”
Guy Kinnings, head of golf, IMG, thinks that the most important thing about the European Tour’s experimentation with the new format and the wider rule changes from the governing bodies is that they demonstrate golf has acknowledged the need to innovate. “I think there’s a general acceptance that one, we need to change our perceptions and look at how the game can be played, and two, present lots of alternatives – you know golf is adaptable,” he says.
In the same spirit of innovation, IMG recently introduced walk-up music and a live DJ on the driving range at its Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship event. According to Kinnings, much of the impetus for this came from the sponsor HSBC.
Through its ‘Anyone’s Game’ campaign the bank wants to make golf more entertaining and accessible for a younger audience – a move that tallies with its attempts to project a grassroots-focused and socially-responsible image.
“Their sponsorship teams have very much driven the need for change and innovation and for sure people, stagers like ourselves and implementers and people who work for them on tours and media, have to respond to that,” he says. “They are funding programmes that produce new star players across China and in the UK. If you do that, then I think you’ve got a voice that can validly be heard when you say this game also needs to make changes to grow in the future.”
The focus on how golf might meet the objectives of HSBC is interesting given that the bank also has a sponsorship deal with British Cycling – the sport that golf is supposed to be losing audience share and participants to. Given the recent scandals surrounding the use of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) by the British Cycling team there are questions about whether the sport continues to be the marketer’s dream it is often portrayed to be.
“Golf is free from controversy, still remains a core sport that hits the right demographics for major blue-chip brands and there are few properties that can provide such stability and quality exposure,” says Nicholas Oakley, principal, KPMG Sports Advisory Practice.
“Of course, there needs to be innovation and change but if the new concepts become ‘gimmicks’ and the stakeholders become dissatisfied, it could highlight the sport’s challenges further. Golf has lots of strengths to play to.”
Kinnings acknowledges that golf has a tendency to be overly critical of itself and that there is a danger that it will lose sight of what it does well in the clamour to appeal to Generation X. Although fewer people might be playing 18-hole golf, he says that golf attendance at ranges and the popularity of the Topgolf bar game and 3D simulator GolfZon prove people are still interested in the sport, but perhaps not in the traditional way.
“The GolfZon simulator product is incredibly popular in Korea and many of the people who take up that version of the game have never been anywhere near a real golf course,” he says.
“The great thing golf has at its heart, if it takes advantage of it properly, is that you can play from very young to very old and the handicapping system means that a five-year old and an 85-year-old can play against Dustin Johnson, the world No.1. Of course, that appeals to the corporates, so we love the fact that the guys in their mid-30s through to their 60s who are senior management, CEOs, like the game, but we also know we need to get youngsters into the game.”
To achieve this, talk inevitably turns to the importance of social media and the TV presentation of golf. The sense that the sport is pulling in the same direction is reinforced when Pelley and Kinnings namecheck the same examples of content when they talk about the sport’s successes on digital channels.
“Some of the video content our social media team has created in the past year or so has been simply terrific – the Mannequin Challenge, the Awkward Reporter (see below), the Fastest Hole of Golf and the Little Interviews are just a few,” Pelley says. “With the Rolex Series events this year, there will be a much-enhanced digital and social media product to continue to produce engaging content.”
There is also a recognition that the women’s game could also provide a fertile area for new audiences and participants. Ivan Khodabakhsh, chief executive of the Ladies’ European Tour (LET) says that the percentage of female golfers as a proportion of the playing population is still low in core markets like the US and Britain, but the R&A has been very supportive in trying to reverse the trend. In March the governing body increased its funding for the LET and its development tour, The LET Access Series, for 2017, while its recent rule changes paid more attention to the needs of female golfers than they might have done in the past.
“The rule changes that the R&A wanted to introduce – it was not just a new set of rules, it was a whole new approach which we believe makes the game not just accessible for men in general, but also for women in the same way,” Khodabakhsh says.
“I come from an Olympic background where there’s one governing body and you try to develop the sport from the top down to the grassroots. We understand that there is a responsibility for professional sports to make a contribution to the growth and development of the game.”
In spite of the negative headlines generated by Zika-related player withdrawals before Rio 2016, there is also positivity about the return of the sport to the Olympic schedule. Kinnings, for one, thinks the strength of the golf market in Japan will make the players more supportive of the event at Tokyo 2020. He also supports the idea of a mixed matchplay event to boost the profile of some of female professionals.
“Golf being back in Olympics is a good thing. I think it will be very strong in Tokyo in 2020,” he says. “And the idea of mixed concepts and things are great and we’re very supportive of that as an approach. For sure it needs refining – some will work, some won’t.”
If anything, Kinnings believes that the sport has been guilty of innovating too much and the trick will be for administrators to remove some of the clutter.
“At the moment it’s a little difficult because there are so many concepts out there. I’m sure it would be healthy if you could pull it altogether as a single, short-form concept, but it doesn’t do any harm if people can see different ways that golf can be fun.”
It’s a view echoed by those that have one of the most significant stakes in keeping participation levels high. As group director of golf and health and fitness for MacDonald Hotel & Resorts, Keith Pickard says he has seen a steady decline in the traditional golf membership model over the last three to four years and that his golf courses have had to be open-minded to remain busy.
Flying in the face of the image of golf clubs as bastions of tradition and conservatism, the hotel has trialled FootGolf – the format of the game played with a football – at its Aviemore course. So far Pickard’s courses have hosted nine-hole challenges, but if the European Tour’s new tournament is a success, he thinks it will only be a matter of time before they host six-hole match play.
“It would be about us working out how [to make sure] it wouldn’t impact on the traditional golfers out there. But not only do we not want to spoil the experience for them, we also wouldn’t want to spoil the experience for the six-hole golfers either.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a better example of golf’s attempts to take a more democratic and less elitist approach than that. And in this respect, Kinnings is singing from the same hymn sheet.
“The R&A have said play nine holes, the European Tour are going for six holes with the GolfSixes [format] and others,” he says. "You know what? Pick a number, it doesn’t matter. They’re playing golf.”
To read a blog by HSE Cake managing director Jim Dowling on how golf can avoid a mid-life crisis, click here.