One of the best things about last weekend’s GolfSixes tournament on the European Tour was the simple fact that it took place, reports Ross Biddiscombe, golf journalist and author. That’s three new event formats on the two main professional golf tours this season, so the tide is really turning towards innovation and change.
The World Super 6 in Australia was the first new-style tournament of the year in February (an individual event with two days of strokeplay and two more of six-hole matchplay) and then the US PGA Tour got in on the act with the Zurich Classic pairs event in New Orleans last month. The GolfSixes – with its two-man teams from 16 nations, a shot clock, excitable MCs on every green co-ordinating the cheering and plenty of pyrotechnics – made up the hat-trick. Add in the Hero Challenge last season at Woburn (a floodlit, one hole shootout that will appear at three European Tour venues this year) and that’s a lot of different visions of golf’s future in a short period of time.
But no one is so naïve as to think that any of these new formats are perfect. GolfSixes at The Centurion Club was lots of fun when the home team of England’s Chris Wood and Andy Sullivan were on the course, but a group stage match on day one between Thailand and Belgium, for example, is hardly going to get the crowd’s pulses racing in Hemel Hempstead.
Yet the players definitely enjoyed it and men like Sullivan and Australia’s Scott Hend (both with big personalities) were made for all the chest-bumping and flag waving. There will be cynics who can pick holes in the format because this was always an experiment where being live on Facebook and YouTube and creating a social media buzz was of huge importance. But the European Tour’s chief executive Keith Pelley is a man on a mission and guaranteed its return in his end-of-event speech.
For Pelley, now just two years into his new job, the GolfSixes was close to his heart. “It may or may not work, but the narrative in golf worldwide is to innovate. After the event, we’ll go away and evaluate, but we have to drive younger generation engagement,” he said.
That message never changed throughout the weekend, so now the backslapping has to stop and the reality sets in – what to do next year? The plusses were the shot clock (yes, pros CAN play fast – six holes played in just one hour was wonderful); the attendance figures which were high (10,000 pre-sales) and the reaction of players who took part that was totally positive.
The areas for improvement include more named sponsors (the Tour will not self–fund this forever); an even better line-up of players (a Rory or a Jordan would put this event on the map); more effective on-site information for the fans (why don’t the players hit coloured golf balls, for instance, and why aren’t the MCs a bit more loquacious as players approach a green); and a TV commentary style that reflects the event’s innovative theme and is a little more animated or even humorous, especially on the final day, in order to build excitement (what about an on-screen graphic of champagne corks when a match is won and more ooh’s and aah’s from the commentators in reaction to each shot).
At the end of the day, GolfSixes was a golf tournament trying to be something different and it’s not easy because golf still has one big problem – too much down time between shots. Having attended the event on finals day and also watched the television coverage, there is still a way to go for both on-site fans and TV viewers are totally happy.
The message is simple: keep innovating and look at how other sports have adapted to modern audiences. By comparison, cricket’s reputation as the slowest sport in Christendom has changed completely with Twenty20, a version of the sport that maintains its integrity, yet is all action all the time and even has TV commentators in conversation with players on the field while the game is taking place. All the best things about T20 took time to develop and it will be the same for golf – remember that the Ryder Cup wasn’t always one of the world’s most envied team events (even generation ago, it could easily have been scrapped because of American indifference and before the involvement of continental European players in 1979).
So we need to give GolfSixes a chance, flood the European Tour with all our ideas for even more improvements and support it (and watch it) again in 2018. We all know it makes sense.
The European Tour www.europeantour.com