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Social media in India was abuzz during the Tokyo Olympics when India’s Aditi Ashok led the field for most of the four days of competition before falling short of a medal. This is the second consecutive Olympic Games which she contested – her first was at the Rio Olympics at the age of 18 – and people have spoken about the possibility of the growth of the game in the Global South.
For the lack of access and popularity, millennials and subsequent younger generations have not had a chance to get introduced to the sport. The fan-following of the sport remains limited and therefore the larger population has continued to perceive the game as elite and obscure.
Apart from such a perception, the languid nature of the game has also played a big role in the limited popularity of golf. In a recent interview, one of America’s top golfers Stacy Lewis remarked that the game was going to lose people who watch golf. Although her comments were reserved for the women’s professional tour, she could have been speaking for the entire game of golf.
The traditional tournament ‘Stroke-Play’ format of 72 holes played over four days has long been the norm at all competitive levels of the game. In today’s fast paced day and age, this slow play has implications for advertisers, broadcasters, golfers and ultimately the future of the game itself.
There are other formats of the game that exist, but these are only played periodically. These include ‘Match-Play’ which sees golfers play head-to-head in a knock-out format, or ‘Stableford’ which is a points system. Thus, to attract and be relevant for younger generations, it is imperative for the game of golf to evolve and adopt a more exciting format.
Chatter around alternative formats in golf dates back a century. The same was said about the game of cricket. For instance, when T20 cricket was first introduced, detractors said that it would turn a game of skill and expertise into a four hour smash-a-thon. However, the shortest format of the game has arguably made cricketers more confident, willing to take risks, and the game more entertaining to watch. This has in turn led to an increase in the popularity of the sport and has dramatically increased viewership.
Inevitably, advertisers have realised the huge potential of marketing their products and services to billions of spectators and are therefore helping fund the growth and reach of the game. This has inter alia helped revive the game of cricket whose popularity had primarily been limited to South Asia during much of the late 20th and early 21st century.
In recent times, the European Tour has taken the lead in innovative formats. Golf Sixes, introduced in 2017, pitted 16 pairs of golfers representing their countries against each other in a round robin format. Similar to football knockouts, they progressed in a knock-out format. Golfers were put on the clock and given 30 seconds per shot or else a penalty would be imposed. This in turn had an effect when a professional was penalised for taking longer than the stipulated time. Players were also able to choose their personal music while they teed off, much like wrestling entrances.
Apart from these currently existing innovations, the game needs to push the envelope and step into the 21st century. A radical overhaul of the rules, which came into effect not long ago has not achieved the desired expectations of putting to bed the phenomenon of slow play either.
Adopting one-day formats akin to a few hours is ideal. If the professional game could adopt, for example, a closest to the pin shootout which determines the winner akin to a ‘javelin throw’ or ‘shooting’ which are both respected Olympic sports, it would likely go a long way towards generating interest and captivating spectators (and perhaps future golfers) to the game. For golfing purists, this may be blasphemy – however, this is exactly the kind of shot in the arm that this sport desperately needs in the global south.
More conservative formats such as the Ryder Cup match-play format (a biannual team event between the USA and Europe) adapted to a shorter 9-hole version instead of the full 18 holes may also be considered.
Another interesting format could be the adoption of a sudden death match play format for both individual and team competitions. This could be the golfing equivalent of a T20, enabling a pressure-cooker situation where the golfer has to survive on each subsequent hole to progress.
It is high-time that the game of golf was re-imagined in a shorter one-day format to stir excitement and interest. Repackaging the game into formats such as these could additionally generate economic interest from potential new stakeholders who were hitherto indifferent to the game such as OTT platforms and new media. With sports across the board looking at emerging formats, golf too must think of its future.
After a long hiatus, the men’s and women’s professional golf tours in India are making a return. The crucial questions, therefore, are, how can the game of golf be re-imagined to be made more engaging? And does the industry have the stomach to follow through on such bold and radical ideas?
Samraat Basu is an avid golfer who has played both national and international level junior golf for India. He is now a lawyer who is currently based in the Netherlands as a lecturer in law at Tilburg Law School. He tweets @samraat_basu
Aman Misra is a deaf sports journalist and amateur golfer who has covered professional golf in the past. He is currently based out of Calcutta. He tweets at @sociologysport