John McHenry: It's hard to sell the game of golf without fan interaction

Champions of this great event are the very elite of the professional game. Langer, Ballesteros, Faldo, Olazabal, Harrington, McIlroy and Rahm
John McHenry: It's hard to sell the game of golf without fan interaction

Padraig Harrington of Ireland chips onto the 18th green during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Golf Championship at Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort in Ballymena, Antrim. The event is being played with no spectators due to Covid-19 restrictions. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The Irish Open will always hold a very special place in my heart. Like many others before and after, it was the Irish Open that gave me my first professional start and with it so many lasting memories down through the years.

Champions of this great event are the very elite of the professional game. Langer, Ballesteros, Faldo, Olazabal, Harrington, McIlroy and Rahm, to name just a few. They are players who honed their early games on great Irish golf courses and to a spectator audience that were knowledgeable, high spirited, and fully appreciative of the depth of talent on show.

Today was James Sugrue’s turn to announce and present his credentials to that same audience. He hit a fine 67 on a cold morning and on a golf course that put manners on many of his more illustrious colleagues. It also represented an unfussy demonstration of his blossoming talent.

Five birdies and two bogies now leave him in a very tidy position just two shots off the pace with everything to look forward to over the next three days.

That said, it is truly lamentable that James’s two most recent professional experiences have lacked, the one ingredient every professional golfer craves, the feedback from the crowds and especially an Irish audience.

I witnessed for myself just how hard it is to sell the game of golf without fan interaction. There's something unsettling about watching a golf tournament played behind closed doors.

The faces of the players, and the swings they make may well resemble each other, but a spectator-less setting – one filled with an odd echo rather than with noise and with life is so different that it feels almost alien.

No spectators of course are just one of the many the health and safety conditions set down by the Covid-19 pandemic. They certainly are not the fault of what is a really testing Galgorm golf course or the cool blustery conditions the players have to play in but nobody should doubt but that these same circumstances have directly led to the reduction in prize money and have also tremendously impacted the calibre of the field.

And what can the European Tour or the Irish Open’s Sponsor Dubai Duty Free do only grin and bear it?

There is still an Irish Open to be won so they will continue to talk up the value of the brand, the sponsor experience, the world-wide coverage but in truth Dubai Duty Free’s commitment is more a holding card waiting for better times to come back.

A view of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and The Open Championship "Claret Jug" trophies at the first hole. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
A view of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and The Open Championship "Claret Jug" trophies at the first hole. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

While everyone has to respect the extreme lengths, the European Tour has gone to make the Irish Open happen this year, it should also be noted that tournament sponsorships and broadcasting contracts earn the European Tour a lot of money, but empty stands and no spectator experience make for less motivated players and an awkward experience for TV viewers in their homes. 

Actual attendance and crowd engagement are crucial factors towards creating the right atmosphere. You only have to look at the Ryder Cup to prove this point. Hyped and excited crowds build momentum and energy, something which broadcasters can far more easily sell to at-home viewers, than when the stands are empty.

While everyone understands the seriousness of the pandemic we are now experiencing and the fact that every effort must be made to keep everyone safe, - the European Tour’s most pressing issue now, it seems, is keeping its product’s attractiveness alive long enough to allow sponsors and spectator audiences return to a golfing arena, that at its very best produces unparalleled drama.

And yet, for all the sincerity and determination by Tours to do whatever they can to loyally keep the show on the road, they must now also be surely steeling themselves to play behind closed doors for some time to come should a vaccine not be found in the near future.

The economic consequences of waiting for a perfect world for the likes of the European Tour are such that, by the time fans are allowed back into tournament venues, there may be no longer be a professional tournament near you to attend.

In Ireland, I have no such fears but for many of the more established venues and tournaments around the world, my confidence is a little more reserved.

Now is not the time for greed. The European Tour has carved a business out of being able to bank on committed fans who sometimes build their entire week around the likes of an Irish Open making it the centrepiece of everything it does that week.

Now is the time to reach out to this loyal fan base and listen to what they want to see and hear and do everything to accommodate them, rather than greedily look at shorter term options that may alienate a fickle audience and have a far longer lasting impact.

More in this section