JOHN MCHENRY: New formats may still be golf, but not as we know it

Rivalries are nothing new in sport. They are on every corner but few have the importance or the commercial impact of the three-day match play tournament which biennially pits the best players from both the US and Europe against each other: the Ryder Cup.

Topgolf — combining entertainment with golf — has proven a hit inthe US and UK.
Topgolf — combining entertainment with golf — has proven a hit in the US and UK.

Important because in the 90s, the successful campaigns of their Ryder Cup teams gave the European Tour much- needed credibility while also affording it a corporate lifeline, through sponsorship which it exploited in full to grow its schedule by way of keeping their superstars like Ballesteros, Lyle, Faldo, Langer, and Woosnam at home — despite the many efforts of USPGA Tour to lure them away.

And yet the European Tour may never have been in this position, had it not been for the “bigger picture” vision of Jack Nicklaus to change a largely uncompetitive match between the US and Britain and Ireland to that of the US versus Europe from 1979 onwards.

The success of the Ryder Cup and the major championship formats have proven time and again, that golf has a place in the hearts of commercial and sporting audiences around the world but more and more it seems that with the alarming decline in participation rates, throughout the more established golfing nations of the world, the sport now needs to find many more appealing “big picture” solutions — especially with the younger generation — if it is to truly prosper.

For some time now, authorities like the R&A’s development committee have spoken about golf continuing its global expansion but too often they have been guilty of sticking their own heads in the sand on matters closer to home, in the hope that everything will eventually sort itself out, as if by miracle than anything else.

You see, golf clubs today face withering competition for the money and time of younger consumers, those especially the millennials (18-35 year olds), who now work harder and prefer to spend more of their limited leisure time with family. Nor is the game helped by the fact that many teens and twentysomethings now prefer doodling on an iPhone, iPad, Wii or Facebook before committing to golf for five to six hours. In this era of instant gratification, golf’s too long. Kids can play console games indoors and excel. Golf is outside and often times too challenging.

The stats don’t lie — golf is supported by an increasingly ageing population, so while the Golfing Union of Ireland may talk about the recent decline in club memberships, it is imperative that all authorities and golf clubs address all matters, like the decline in participation numbers as well as the reduction in consumer spending in both the clubhouse as well as the “pro” shop.

Golf has to think outside of the box to grow. It has to adapt to the times.

When thinking of solutions for the game, it is imperative that we primarily focus all of our attention on amateur golf because it is the commercial lifeline for all business aspects of the game, including tournament golf in the professional game. So what can be done?

Well, it’s no harm to properly understand the mindset of the next generation of potential members, studying how they view golf participation or the reason why other activities like cycling and running have actively reversed decreasing trends among millennial participation.

We already know that millennials are a more open and socially conscious generation who often view golf as a very traditional, formal and exclusionary sport because in the past, that was too often the case. And therein lies the challenge for golf: Can it evolve sufficiently from its more traditional and formal roots to the way millennials want to enjoy their golfing experience without compromising their older membership?

One company that has proved there is still a thriving opportunity to succeed in golf is the brand TopGolf, a gamefied driving range entertainment and event venue with point-scoring golf games for all skill levels. Put simply, Topgolf is an entertainment centre, with golfing bays where up to six people can eat, drink, watch tv, and drive golf balls while also listening to DJs and bands to perform in the evenings while the golf targets change colours and pulse in rhythm to the music.

For traditionalists, that may all sound a little crazy, but with Topgolf’s attendance at its 24 venues (21 in the US, three in the UK) last year exceeding eight million people and producing revenues in excess of $300m (€268m), it offers hope for those brave enough to embrace change.

That change must come from the very top, where the likes of the R&A must find ways to create a competitive and hugely entertaining gender neutral game in order to assist golf’s perception amongst a younger spending audience — a game that will prioritise them, by placing a major emphasis on areas like entertainment, brevity, shot-making skills and risk-reward — a six-hole short-format, after work or night-time game that could constantly unearth new talent, spark talking points and cultivate vibrant social media opportunities. One which if promoted properly through an app, could be full of colour and played out in front of packed, buzzing galleries.

In doing so, it will offer a unique vehicle that would demonstrate true leadership. It would revolutionise golf’s legacy, without compromising its integrity.

Food for thought...

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