By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Golf has clung slavishly to its centuries-old traditions and long ignored growing calls for reform but the ancient sport will be nudged gently towards modernity at the inaugural World Super 6 tournament in Australia this week.
The European Tour co-sanctioned event at Perth’s Lake Karrinyup Country Club will ditch convention by deciding Sunday’s winner in a final day matchplay shootout after three rounds of regular strokeplay.
The innovation will promise a more “punchy” finish for spectators and television audiences, organizers hope, as a full field whittled down to 24 players compete in pairs in six-hole playoffs until only one remains.
While more evolution than revolution, it’s a tweak unprecedented on any of the world’s major professional tours.
It also counted as a necessary experiment for a game that was struggling to lure a new generation of participants and fans in golf’s mature markets, according to the Australian PGA Tour.
“The challenge for a lot of sport, and particularly for golf, is the demographic of the average golfer and golf fan is a bit older,” PGA Australia’s chief commercial officer Steve Ayles told Reuters on Wednesday.
“We’re basically the number one sport for over-45s.
“This form of event certainly appeals to a younger demographic and certainly appeals to people who are time-poor.
“And we believe that this will be a great spectacle.”
The Scottish city of Perth is renowned for its rich golf heritage, with King James IV having made the first recorded purchase of golf clubs from a local bowmaker there in 1502, but its Australian namesake is an unlikely launch-pad for reform.
With most of the world’s top golfers competing at the $7 million Genesis Open on the PGA Tour, a modest field headlined by Swedish world number 11 Alex Noren and former British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen will battle in the A$1.75 million ($1.34 million) event at Lake Karrinyup.
“I think it’s great that we try new things and I think it’s going to be exciting for the crowds and nice for the TV viewers too,” Noren said.
“I think anything where the crowd experiences a new way for us to play the game is good. I think we should work out more ways to do this kind of thing.”
The top 10 rankings are laden with 20-somethings, including Australian world number one Jason Day and Northern Ireland’s second-ranked Rory McIlroy, but in the sport’s traditional markets, fans and participants are ageing and thinning.
Australia, where huge crowds once flocked to local courses when favorite son Greg Norman was in his pomp, has battled to attract sponsors and fans to its marquee events in recent years, while struggling to arrest declining rates of participation.
Golf tourism fueled by international visitors has taken up some of the slack for the embattled industry but scores of lower-profile private clubs have slashed fees to lure new members.
Australia has never wanted for a pioneering spirit, however, and local sports have gladly ditched tradition in a bid to innovate and open new markets.
The nation’s domestic Twenty20 cricket competition, the ‘Big Bash’, has proved an outrageous success since its inaugural tournament in 2011-12, its glitzy mix of sport and entertainment drawing huge attendances and television audiences.
The national athletics federation has also attempted to foment revolution with the recent staging of the inaugural Nitro Series in Melbourne, where Usain Bolt and his ‘All-Star’ internationals competed against five nations in a team-based event held over three meetings.
Organizers promise a similarly relaxed and informal atmosphere at Lake Karrinyup, where there will be live music, DJs and a specially built 90-metre ‘shootout hole’ to act as a tie-breaker for pairs who halve their six-hole matchplay duels.
But with the tournament still dominated by conventional strokeplay over the opening three days, it will not be so revolutionary as to upset the silver-haired set.
“This tournament is not to say that strokeplay events aren’t still popular,” Ayles added. “They are immensely popular around the world. This really just provides an alternative.
“If all goes well, we would certainly consider expanding this across Australia and then potentially, Europe and Asia.”
(Editing by John O’Brien)