The countdown to The Ryder Cup officially got underway last month as Thomas Bjørn and Jim Furyk, the respective European and US captains for the 2018 contest at Le Golf National in France, recreated an iconic moment in history by hitting golf balls off the Eiffel Tower.
The event was part of the Year-to-Go celebrations, 41 years after the legendary Arnold Palmer became the first (and only previous person) to do so beforehand.
Very few tournaments in world sport, let alone golf, capture the public’s attention like The Ryder Cup. Played every other year, the event dominates the national conversation in the months leading up to it… and when the action gets underway, interest – not to mention rivalry between Europe and the US – goes off the scale.
The Ryder Cup transcends the sport; it’s the Jewel in The Crown of world golf, appealing to both enthusiasts and non-golfers alike, and, notably, of all ages! At a time when participation levels and viewing figures for golf are on the slide, the sport’s governing bodies would love to see ‘the magic of The Ryder Cup’ filter down, through the rest of the sport.
The audience isn’t hugely representative of golf’s ageing demographic, which is a major concern for the game’s governing bodies and sponsors alike. It is a sport where sponsorship is crucial. There’s no suggestion that global brands such as BMW, HSBC and Hilton are about to walk away from the game – it remains a ‘good fit’ for many of the sport’s partners – but as HSBC’s head of sponsorship, Giles Morgan, stated prior to the 2016 Olympics, “If in 10 years people are not engaging in the sport, not playing or watching it and it’s not relevant to the people we want to do business with, it follows that it won’t be the right way to engage with them.”
“I don’t think the sport’s in trouble, but I do think that those who are in charge of the game need to be brave,” added Morgan. “They need to take some risks.”
The world has changed beyond recognition over the last 15 years, particularly with digital communications and people’s time. Yes, there’s an argument that golf struggled to keep up with that change, but the sport’s governing bodies have recognised that there is work to do and made huge – and brave – strides in the last two to three years, introducing major new initiatives and rule changes to modernise and broaden the appeal of the game.
Keith Pelley, Chief Executive of the European Tour, is a man on a mission. Pledging to make the sport more relevant, Pelley has identified slow play as golf’s biggest enemy, recognising the need to embrace innovation and modernise the sport: “There’s a desperate need for something else that can attract a different demographic, a new energy and a different time commitment to the game.”
It’s a view shared by The Royal & Ancient. Chief Commercial Officer, Neil Armit, acknowledges: “All of us have a responsibility to encourage more people, and young people in particular, to take up the sport. Now, more than ever before, it’s important that golf is able to change and adapt to stay relevant in the modern era.”
Pelley and the European Tour’s solution is GolfSixes – a six-hole competition that can be completed in little over an hour, and is a significant step towards finding a marketable short form of the game.
The inaugural tournament made its debut at the Centurion Club in St Albans, in May, with two-man teams from 16 different nations – each nation represented by its two leading ranked and available players – going head-to-head.
“We have said for some time that golf needs to modernise. Introducing innovative new formats is a major part of achieving that,” says Pelley.
“We want to broaden the appeal of our sport to the millennial demographic and I think this format will do that. Not only through the quick and exciting style of play, but also with the interactive digital experience fans will enjoy on site.
“We have brought a country-versus-country element to the fore. There is no question that the greatest atmosphere in golf comes every two years at The Ryder Cup and we are keen to try and emulate that national fervour in this format. We are in the entertainment content business, with golf as our platform, and GolfSixes is the perfect illustration of that.”
It is certainly different. In the inaugural competition the third hole had a long drive competition, while the fourth had a 40-second shot clock. Too gimmicky? Possibly in some areas, but overall the event was a huge success,establishing itself as a blueprint for the sport’s version of cricket’s Twenty20 format. No-one would have said 20 years ago that Twenty20 cricket would be as successful as it has become. And it hasn’t stopped the purists getting their diet of Test cricket.
Traditional professional golf becomes hugely absorbing “down the stretch” – GolfSixes catapults us straight to that point with no preamble. It’s just what golf needs.
Every shot counts – the pressure is on from the start and a good start is paramount, but there’s always the potential of a dramatic fight-back. It’s a formula that has served cricket’s IPL and Big Bash matches so well.
It feels as though the Tour has arrived on a concept that can complement the existing diet of predominantly 72 holes strokeplay. It would work well under floodlights in big city venues, too, where it is easier to attract big crowds.
Surely this is the next step for the Hero Challenge, another innovation designed to dramatise the sport and help broaden its appeal. Taking the stars of the European Tour to city centres for a dramatic, floodlit, one-hole knockout contest – with music, celebrities, flame throwers and fireworks (obviously!) – now you’re talking!
Some of the traditionalists will no doubt welcome change as ‘warmly’ as they do women in the clubhouse, but golf needs to make itself more attractive to players and audiences of all ages, abilities and interest levels.
As Giles Morgan put it: “Get it right and more sponsors will come; more television will follow and more spectators will follow.” Concerns…what concerns?
The inaugural GolfSixes was won by Denmark, beating finalists Australia on the closing green. While Scotland finished third, triumphing by inches in a nearest-the-pin shootout against Italy.
It was a fitting climax to a weekend that laid down an encouraging and exciting marker for the future of the game.