Golf | 19 May 2017 | By Michael Vlismas
Golf's Popularity - Does golf need new formats, or new characters?
Van Phillips. He sounds a bit like a skateboarder. Or maybe just the make of the boardshorts on the skateboarder. But he was actually a European Tour golfer who reached his peak in the Nineties – and who played in a long-sleeved shirt and tie.
As a golf writer I loved watching Phillips whenever he made the trip to play on the Sunshine Tour purely because he looked so different. Sometimes he’d even wear a waistcoat while playing. It was all part of a sponsorship deal he had, but it was fun to watch nonetheless.
In 2017, golf is trying its best to read its TV audience and figure out what they think is fun to watch. And it’s proving as tough a read as a 30-foot break on Augusta National’s greens.
The Players Championship produced what on the face of it was an incredible story – Si Woo Kim, a golfer who is almost last in every major playing stat comes out of left field and becomes the youngest winner of golf’s “fifth Major” at the age of 21.
But clearly American TV audiences didn’t think so. According to figures released by NBC, the final round coverage was the tournament’s lowest since 1998.
The fact that Adam Scott was the only player in the top 10 in the world who also finished in the top 10 here obviously has something to do with it, as does Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson missing the cut.
And is it a concern that one of the most memorable things to come out of The Players was the Twitter spat between Ian Poulter and Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee?
Why in an age when golf has arguably the greatest depth in incredible talent do we seem to be scratching around for viewers and interest in tournaments?
The PGA Tour is looking at scheduling as an issue while many players are calling for a dedicated off-season to create a greater sense of anticipation amongst fans.
The European Tour is looking at ever-creative playing formats along the lines of Golf Sixes to try and change this side of the game.
But there is perhaps also a time to ask whether the players themselves offer up anything different. Or, at the risk of sounding like a misty-eyed golf fan of yesteryear, to simply ask: Where are the characters? Where is the surprise package?
If we look at tennis, would it be wrong to suggest that Roger Federer is maybe more fun to watch now than he’s ever been? For years we marvelled because he was just so good. Then we wanted him to retire so we could remember him that way only. Now he comes back briefly, does the impossible for a week or two, and then goes away again, leaving us all in anticipation of his next magic trick.
Arnold Palmer changed the face of golf because you never knew what to expect. He was either going to blow past the entire field in spectacular fashion, or blow out of the tournament in spectacular fashion.
Seve Ballesteros launched an entire generation of golfers who will tell you they grew up “watching” Seve play golf. Not necessarily being inspired by Seve to play golf, but revelling in the pure joy of just watching him and the excitement of his unpredictability.
Tiger Woods was no more technically gifted than a host of other great golfers. But he brought something so radically different to the game that we were all mesmerised for years.
If we accept that professional golfers are all exceptionally gifted athletes, then when it comes to meeting the entertainment needs of the marketing execs and Tour media machines, there needs to be a distinguishing factor for one or two of them to really connect with the fans in a greater way than just their golf games.
Rory McIlroy is a fan favourite because he remains such an open person who says what’s on his mind. There is a charm about him and people are drawn to this.
After so many years, golf fans are now finally starting to fall in love with Sergio Garcia because in his winning the Masters they felt something for him.
And ultimately the sports fan wants to feel something. It’s the reason why we shout for the underdog. Van Phillips is currently ranked 1907th in the world. Yet when I think about him, I still smile.