Brave New Golf

Most sports have had to deal with change over the years. Cricket, rugby, and football are now very different products compared to 20 years ago, and in that generational shift they have updated their rules, formats, appearances and audiences.

Even my dear old horse racing, a sport that thrives on its traditions and history, has been forced to grudgingly embrace modernisation. How it continues to adopt these new developments without losing its soul was one of the major subjects in my book (still, incredibly, available from a variety of sources including my website, but pop concerts after racing, the proposed sale of Kempton, and Lucy Verasami have all been recently introduced with varying degrees of resistance.

Another time-honoured sport to become introspective and contemplate a significant makeover is golf, and it’s easy to see the reasons why. I used to waste enormous portions of my week watching golf on TV, something that luckily I have now grown out of, like Kit Kat Chunkys and fillings (are those last two connected?) The Ryder Cup aside, the sport seems to have lost some of its sparkle in recent years and appears mundane compared to rival sports. Even Sergio Garcia looked bored when he won in Dubai the other week.

The globalisation of the sport has made it more confused. This week the European Tour is in India, the eighth country of its 2017 season (which started in 2016), most of which are not remotely near the continent. It shall be May when the European Tour first visits Europe. Of course, like horse racing, golf needs to broaden its appeal and win new devotees, but it cannot afford to dilute its essence in the process.

Tiger Woods, for all his faults, brought new interest and enormous funds into the game, but the increased prize money has somehow contrived to make the action dull. There is now so much to lose that players seem shackled by conformity. With a few noticeable exceptions, the successful ones tend to be those who can practice 23 hours a day, play the percentages, and keep their emotions on the course in check.

Rounds that once took three and a half hours now regularly exceed five, with frequent rule checks from officials and extended conferences between player and caddy over the club, lie, wind, temperature, and what calorie-controlled superfood should be consumed in their hermetically sealed hotel room later.

The R&A and the USGA have acted, and recently unveiled a preview of the proposed new Rules of Golf aimed at making them easier to understand and apply. The number of rules has been streamlined from 34 to 24 and will include, get this, bullet points and video – those dudes at the R&A are really down with da kids!

David Rickman, Executive Director at the R&A, said, “It is important that the Rules continue to evolve and remain in tune with the way the modern game is played but we have been careful not to change the game’s longstanding principles.”

Commendable though the idea is, a quick glance at the ‘highlights’ of the proposed rule changes reveal that players will soon be able to repair spike marks, remove loose impediments in bunkers, and (somewhat surprisingly for the uninitiated) adopt a more relaxed approach to taking relief. At best it seems like tinkering (the rule changes, that is).

It is interesting that promoters are now also getting creative. The PGA Championship at Wentworth, considered the flagship of the European Tour, shall now start with the Pro-Am on the Wednesday and finish with the Kaiser Chiefs after the final round on Sunday (I kid you not).

Putting on a pop concert may attract new people, but that doesn’t mean they will be interested in the sport that precedes it. I think the game itself needs livening up. A recent innovation was the World Super 6 from Perth (Australia, not Scotland) which combined strokeplay and matchplay in a slightly convoluted format. The jury is out, but it was worth a go.

I think we need to go further. In fact, to attract the younger generation with the attention span of a demented goldfish, we need drastic action. I humbly submit to the R&A my top five proposals for a Brave New Golf. They may appear more revolution than evolution, but it is only when you scrap the existing mindset and embrace blue sky thinking that significant change can actually happen:

1. Create more island greens and on the narrow walkways to them have those spinny things like on Total Wipeout

Total Golfout – the new blueprint for the future success of the sport

2. All players tee off the first together and those with the best score progress to the next hole. This would encourage aggressive shots and possibly reduce an entire tournament to a few holes – win/win for the busy executive sports-watcher

3. Install a tribe of Macaque monkeys on every course and incentivise them to steal balls by trading them for bottles of beer

4. Have a 30-second shot-clock on big screens around the course with the penalty for those exceeding the time limit of the loss of a club from their bag (club to be selected at random by a minor celebrity spinning a gameshow-esque big wheel)

5. Any moron yelling “In The Hole” “You Da Man” “Ba Ba Boooey” or “Mashed Potato” to be instantly ejected from the course and taken to the nearest insane asylum