Golf from the soapbox

Tournament golf has remained largely unchanged for more than 60 years and has become somewhat stale. Every week it’s the same: four rounds of accumulative strokeplay, played from a Thursday to a Sunday. The only change in that time is there is now a tournament (almost) every week bar Christmas, both in America and on the European Tour. Not surprising, then, that many big and respected sponsors – with the possible exception of car manufacturers – have had their fill of golf as the game continues to dance to the same old routine.

Partially the thinking behind this set formula is that it enables as many players as possible (usually 150 or thereabouts) to tee up each week and have a chance of making a living. The tours are owned by the players, and events with small, select fields, while perhaps more fun and exciting to watch, do not meet their business needs. Television supports the status quo. All broadcasters like series as opposed to one-offs; 13 or 26 shows week after week are just what programmers want. Golf does more than that. It gives them events every week, and the fact that America is 5-8 hours behind us means all Western golf-playing nations get a double dose all year round.

Golf has become glacially slow, but not damagingly so to the TV viewing public. With all the toys at their disposal, broadcasters can give the viewer a steady flow of the game, with shots stacked up like planes lined up to land at Heathrow. For many years now 70 per cent of golf shown on TV has been ‘off tape’. For the home viewer, the product is fast enough.
The sport, though, is aware that it needs to change, that it could do with something fresher and quicker.

European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley is certainly keen to embrace new formats of the game. “The tradition, the integrity of the game, the 72-hole tournament will always be there in some form, but if you catapult ahead 10 or 15 years the game of golf will be consumed completely differently and there will be different formats that will be successful as content entertainment makers,” he said back in the summer. “People’s time is so precious… I think every golf course being built needs to be six holes, six holes, six holes, so that people can go at the beginning before they go to work.”

Golf looks with envy at cricket and sees t­he rising tide of Twenty20s, but cannot follow; there is no easy short, entertaining alternative. There are, though, forms of the game that could and should be used more often.

Without going into all the pros and cons, the whys and wherefores, here’s how golf might change…
1. Four rounds of strokeplay should be retained only for the majors, plus perhaps the World Golf Championships and one or two more select events – the Players Championship, say, and our PGA. They should be like Test matches in cricket – the most important events.

2. Other tournaments could still start with 156 golfers, but only 16 would make the cut, with the event being completed on a knockout matchplay basis: 18-hole matches morning and afternoon both days. To keep the greater membership happy, this could be extended to include a second tier of qualifiers, making for a second flight of matches – so 32 players could compete over the weekend.

3. Already there is chat about shortened forms of the game, many based on just six holes. Tom Critchley’s Sprint 6 is perhaps the most thought-through and developed, featuring six-hole matches with strict time controls so that no game would take much above an hour – a good 50 per cent quicker than pro golf currently takes. It has a four-day pro tournament format too. Four groups of 10 players would each play one another over the first three days: three games a day, each over six holes, so still only 18 holes a day per player. The top four from each group would then go on to Sunday, and again there would be a classic last 16, with each match still over six holes, the winner and runner-up playing a maximum of 24 holes; nothing too strenuous there. Again, not the full 150 or more players, but we have to broaden the thinking.

4. Foursomes are an important part of golf, and there could be room for a short series of such a tournament – say, four in a year. Speed of play would be a feature: players walking forward while their partner drives, little conferring, and no round taking longer than 3½ hours, with disqualification if it does.

The appeal of all this would be variety, different forms of our great and many-faceted game getting an airing. With improved speed of play an integral part of other formats, maybe playing quicker might even seep its way into the ever-present four-round medal tournaments.

Bruce Critchley is a Sky Sports golf commentator. Fitzdares encourages all golfers to download the sprint6golf app.

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