Be careful what you wish for. Two months ago in my blog ‘Brave New Golf’ I outlined my blueprint for the reinvention of the increasingly dull game of golf. It seems that the powers that be were listening. Or perhaps they’d thought of it already and have never read my blog; one of the two.
They didn’t adopt all of my proposals – it seems that Total Wipeout-esque spinny things over lakes with narrow walkways didn’t make the cut at the planning meeting – but at times last weekend it was difficult to figure out if you were watching a sport or a gameshow. As Andy Sullivan belly flopped a man dressed in a pink, cartoon, oversized “6” costume it was impossible not to think of It’s A Knockout.
Other departures from the staid norm involved the introducers shouting a lot (Ivor Robson would be turning in his grave) and the players flapping their arms up and down to encourage ‘atmosphere’. Things that are manufactured can seem contrived compared to their natural cousins, and so it was here. It’s a bit like Kelso protesting too much that it’s Britain’s friendliest racecourse – if you have to shout about how much fun something is, it’s probably not.
In amongst the hoopla were large lulls, as the spectators, commentators and players realised they were still playing golf and not strip Twister with the Miami Dolphins cheerleading squad. Vernon Kaye interviewed Vinnie Jones – there’s one that won’t be threatening the all time top ten TV moments – and then there was a smooth segue to Kevin Pietersen who described how he was now a part-time cricketer and full-time golfer about 17 times. “Birdie chance! Birdie chance!” shouted an announcer as England got a birdie chance.
The language changed as well: 0-0 is the new all square, and holes are not halved but drawn. The group stages leading into a knockout phase were explained with reference to the Champions League, as though it was impossible to comprehend without comparing it to football. It was strangely reminiscent of Matt Chapman on the revamped ITV racing coverage explaining that 16/1 means if you put £1 on you would win £16.
I must try not to sneer from a traditionalist pedestal. The game needs updating before it disappears altogether in the public clamour for instant sporting gratification, but it would be nice to not be talked down to in the process. I was fully expecting a celebrity to explain the aim is to get the little white ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible.
In amongst the patronising twaddle and compulsory fun there were some undoubted positives. The shot clock was embraced by fans and players – throughout the weekend there was only one infringement and indeed it was sensibly reduced from 40 seconds on Saturday to 30 for the final day.
The star of the show was on-course commentator Wayne Riley, who for years has been an amusing companion but was now a revelation freed of the shackles of having to be quiet in between shots. He produced a masterclass in how to enhance a spectacle without dominating it, and he was ably supported in the commentary box by Nick Dougherty and David Howell. They all seemed to be having fun, genuine fun, and they didn’t shout about it.
So far, you may have noticed, I haven’t even talked about the golf. Somehow it got lost in all the razzmatazz, and the results suggested that the six-hole format brought even more luck to a sport that already involves quite a lot. The Danish duo won after stopping inches short of the water at the last, thus denying me a tasty payout on the Aussies at 20/1. I didn’t mind, though, because the Aussies had been very lucky in reaching the final anyway.
The action left me with a slightly hollow feeling that it had just become a glorified putting contest. I know that putting is important in golf, but every other aspect of the game seemed irrelevant, in which case we might as well build Mini-Putt stadiums with windmills and helter skelters. And the team aspect didn’t really work because all the countries seemed to be having too much of a laugh with each other – the Ryder Cup it certainly wasn’t.
A scintillating US Masters last month demonstrates that there shall always be a place for ‘normal’ golf, just as there will always be a place for test cricket and 35-frame snooker matches on our screens, but with a few tweaks there is definitely yardage in this brave new format. Like horse racing, the challenge is to attract new audiences without losing the essence of the sport, and this was a decent first attempt.