Changing The Game
By Iain Carter.
There’s no doubt that the return of Tiger Woods has brought a boost to the game at a pivotal time for golf. The Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas is little more than a very limited field exhibition tournament, yet Woods’ presence helped make golf a mainstay of sporting conversation at a time of year when it can sometimes fade from view. This is the power of Woods. Like him or loathe him, you cannot ignore the fourteen times major champion.
He came up in conversation when I chatted with the outgoing PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Fincherm at the recent HSBC Golf Business Forum in Florida. “I always said before Obama became president, Tiger was the most recognisable person on the planet for a good number of years,” Finchem said. By harnessing the appeal of Woods from the moment he burst onto the scene in 1996, Finchem turned his Tour into the game’s dominant circuit and made himself the most powerful man in golf. “You can argue all day long about who the greatest player was,” Finchem added. “But there isn’t any question that Tiger was the biggest star that golf has ever generated. “Globally recognised, whether you love him or do not like Tiger at all, you have to watch him.” The Commissioner used these factors to bring in lucrative television contracts and sponsors that are the envy of the sporting world.
It is little wonder that Finchem received a standing ovation at the end of the Forum which brought together stakeholders from all facets of the game. And it was fascinating to hear so many views on the direction golf should be taking. Jack Nicklaus told me that the professional game has never been stronger but it was clear, listening to other delegates, that there is still much to be done to ensure golf prospers at other levels.
We heard how the game continues to miss out on the largely untapped market of female participation. Research shows that women make up just 24 percent of the golf market. Yet 29 percent of non-golfing or lapsed females are either interested or very interested in taking up the game and women are more likely to introduce juniors to golf. According to Syngenta, who commissioned the research, the golf industry is missing out on up to $35 billion by not attracting more women to commit to the sport. And then there is the overall expense of playing golf. According to Nicklaus, the winner of a record eighteen majors, it is down to the distance the modern golf ball travels. Courses have to take up extended space which is costly to maintain and makes golf more time consuming. “The fact is, more golf courses have closed in the US in each of the last 10 years than have opened,” Nicklaus said. “This is thanks in great part to changes in the golf ball and the distance it travels. Courses have had to change along with it. It’s now a slower game and more expensive than before, and that can’t be a good thing. “I think we need to develop a golf ball to suit the golf course, rather than build courses to suit a golf ball. Whether it’s a ball that goes 50%, 75%, or 100%, you play a ball that fits the course and your game.”
It was striking to hear a 76 year old legend talk in such an innovative way. Nicklaus, though, reflects the changing attitudes among those who lead the game and recognise the need to capitalise on golf’s return to the Olympics. Golf has never had a better opportunity to spread its global footprint, thanks to the exposure generated by its inclusion in the Games. And the message was clear, the sport’s leaders need to be daring to make the most of the current climate. “We need to take risks, be innovative,” said Giles Morgan, Global Head of Sponsorship for HSBC, one of golf’s biggest backers. “That is the same for all businesses and industries in 2016. Jack Nicklaus said it best here when he stated the world is changing and golf needs to change with it.
“If we all accept the challenge and opportunities created during 2016 – we can make golf anyone’s game.” This is a laudable ambition.
In Woods, we have still one of the most recognisable sportsmen in the world but although he is back for the moment, no one knows how long the soon to be 41 year old will be around. Whether it was in the Bahamas or at the big talking shop in Florida last week, it became clear that golf has to move with the times to fulfil the potential of the current climate.