By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Professional golf has long consisted of 72-hole tournaments played over four days – something that will have to change if the game wants to reach a new generation of fans, the head of the European Tour said.
The tour’s chief executive, Keith Pelley, has pledged to shake up the European circuit since taking over from George O’Grady in 2015, and a couple of innovative tournaments this year are part of that effort.
One is the World Super 6, which began at Perth’s Lake Karrinyup course in Western Australia on Thursday. After the usual three days of stroke play, the A$1.75 million ($1.35 million) tournament will end on Sunday with 24 players competing at match play in six-hole playoffs until only one remains.
Although the tournament makes a grandiose pledge to “revolutionize” golf, the change is more evolution than revolution.
A more radical shift will take place in May at the GolfSixes tournament in Hertfordshire, England. Two-man teams will compete in six-hole matches over a two-day weekend, with pyrotechnics and music and players hooked up to microphones to boost fan engagement.
The new tournaments have been written off as gimmicky by critics. But Pelley – a Canadian whose background is sport media and North American football, not golf – says golf needs to find a way to reach a ‘millennial’ generation that grew up with smart phones, social media and truncated attention spans.
“Golf at the end of the day is not just sport. It is also entertainment, and we have to face up to it that we are in the entertainment business,” Pelley told Reuters in an interview from the World Super 6 in Perth.
“When we grew up with golf, we didn’t have social media and all this technology. The younger generation, particularly, have grown up being able to get things on demand and instantly. It’s no longer the case that they are prepared to wait.”
With 72 holes played over four days a fixture at most tournaments for over a century, instant gratification is not a feature of professional golf. Watching for multiple days before a winner emerges is a heavy commitment for casual fans.
Pelley said 72-hole golf would remain sacrosanct at the four major championships. But he foresees lower-profile tournaments making way for a faster format of golf on the European Tour.
“Seventy-two hole golf is a fundamental part of the game and that will continue,” he said. “But is it something that we want at all tournaments? This is what we are looking at … We do not see the same number of 72-hole tournaments in our calendar in future.”
Getting the players on board may be key to the hopes of any fledgling revolution. The inaugural World Super 6 features a modest field headlined by world number 11 Alex Noren and former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen.
The tournament’s hopes for a favorable first impression also might be tested if marquee players fail to make the final 24 that will compete in pairs on the match-play Sunday.
Organizers should still be applauded for trying something different, Pelley said.
“That does not mean we should throw away traditions of this great game,” he said. “But there is a narrative within the industry that we need to innovate and that change is necessary.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Larry King)