For golf, change is the price of survival

When the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, the custodians of the world’s oldest professional golf championship (the Open Championship), confirmed last week that it was severing its 60-year exclusive TV partnership with the BBC in favour of Sky, it divided opinion amongst those most qualified to talk on the subject.

For golf, change is the price of survival

The chief executive of the R&A, Peter Dawson, justified their position by saying that the agreement with Sky “would enable the R&A to take their support of golf’s development in the UK and Ireland to unprecedented levels” — but others like Lee Westwood saw things differently. As much as he appreciated what Sky had done for the European Tour and the game of golf, showcasing golf’s oldest major championship to the largest possible audience should have been their priority, given that the number of golfers in Britain and &Ireland is dwindling.

As guardians of the game, no one should doubt the R&A would have taken this controversial decision lightly, but having taken the decision to sell their soul to the highest bidder, the onus is on them now to invest those extra funds wisely.

Duncan Weir is the R&A’s Director of Golf Development worldwide, and it is he who sanctions the funds to support projects and coaching programmes worldwide. Approximately half of his annual budget is used to support initiatives in Britain and Ireland, with the balance spent overseas.

His aim is simple: to encourage more people to play golf in more places, more often.

In Ireland, the organisation tasked with growing the game is the Confederation of Golf Ireland, which was created by the GUI, ILGU and the PGA. The CGI’s objectives include: increasing participation, continuing international success, developing a common plan for high performance for the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games and looking at the programmes, services and support required to develop players in Ireland from junior through to elite level.

All well and good, you say — but what about increasing the popularity of the game? For many years now, I would argue golfing authorities have been their own worst enemies — stuck in a time warp.

They have not acted on their own commissioned reports that continually say the game of golf in the more established continents like North America and Europe is in decline. Even those who are participating are now playing fewer rounds. The US alone has lost over five million players in the last 10 years and there has been a 30% decrease in 18-30 year olds entering the game. Golfing retail is down by double digits and TV ratings for golf’s biggest professional tournaments are falling.

Little wonder, then, that Giles Morgan, HSBC’s head of sponsorship, the biggest sponsor of professional tournaments in Asia, said recently: “There are lots of positives about golf but the world, particularly with digital communications and people’s time, has changed in the last 15 years beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. I’m not sure that golf has kept up with that change. 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. They need to take some risks.

“I believe golf has an opportunity to make itself more attractive and if they do, more sponsors will come in, more television will follow, more spectators will follow and the virtuous circle will grow.”

These are sobering words but accurately reflect the true status of the game worldwide. So, how should the game evolve going forward, and how should funds be invested?

First and foremost, the game of golf needs to be braver and think outside the box. As Winston Churchill once said, “Change is the Price of Survival” and never was this more true for golf.

In particular golf needs to address a number of fundamental points. It needs to:

(1) ATTRACT GREATER VIEWING AUDIENCE AND PARTICIPATION

Golf needs to look at a number of other high-profile organisations who have encountered the same problems in recent years and study how they addressed their own issues. In particular, they should look at

* Cricket — Which successfully introduced T20 cricket which in just five years became the financial backbone for the entire cricket industry.

* The America’s Cup — The changes for 34th America’s Cup transformed the sport, greatly improved viewing audiences and commercially secured the viability of the event.

* Rugby 7s.

(2) ADDRESS TIME CONSTRAINTS OF YOUNGER GENERATION

Why hasn’t golf embraced a shorter format? Surely golf clubs can generate greater participation and atmosphere if they had something like after work six-hole one-hour tournaments over a shorter course?

(3) HOW CAN YOU MAKE PARTICIPATION MORE ENJOYABLE?

Study what the other sports have done. Mix up the course! Create a new scoring system that involves a lot more risk reward options. Set-up the golf course to entertain the golfers — not frustrate them. Study the successful social model incorporated by TopGolf or Tiger Woods’ ambitious plans for Bluejack National in Texas. Both focus their attentions firmly on social entertainment and an outdoor family approach. For example, apart from designing a “softer course” with more friendly golf options, Bluejack will also offer other distinctive recreational features on site such as a bowling alley and a games room, a classic American “burger” restaurant as well as archery, zip lines and a ropes course.

(4) BUILD SPEED INTO GOLF

Play tournaments over shorter courses. Make it mandatory that once you start putting, you cannot remark your ball. You finish out! If golf is to grow further and flourish into the future, it must not only be popular but more crucially also find ways to facilitate the transition of players from the junior ranks into senior club membership.

Too often, studies reveal clubs cannot retain these players due to time or financial constraints, or even relocation. Clubs need to get more creative, recognising the financial hardships of the younger generation in transition, by offering more appealing off-peak options or even some sort of repayment mechanism spread out over a longer period of time.

Golf courses must view themselves more as a business and less as a social club, using membership expertise in the club constructively on committees. They must invest more in their membership interests while understanding the financial implications of their decisions. They must take hard decisions in the best long-term commercial interests of the club and if that means reducing course standards or putting in a crèche facility for families or even closing the bar, then so be it.

As Giles Morgan said, “the game of golf needs to keep up with the changes in society”.

The question remains: are the powers that be in golf willing to accept and embrace change?

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