Three things are taking place this week that are completely unrelated in nature, yet tied by the concept of marketing golf beyond the traditional stroke-play events.
First, Jason Day won the WGC-Dell Match Play by gutting out a bad back and showing how great he has become.
Secondly, as first reported by Crain's Detroit Business, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler will not be dueling this summer.
Lastly, the Masters kicks off on Monday. How are these related?
Next week’s pilgrimage of the world’s best to Augusta National is also a worldwide pilgrimage of the casual golf fan to the television. For those not captivated by the FedEx Cup or emotionally moved by the winner in Waialae each year, the Masters is the beginning of a condensed period of golf devotion for many. For some, it marks the only time all year they will pay attention to the sport as a fan.
Other majors, the Ryder Cup and, perhaps, the Olympics will bring more eyeballs back, but there is no denying that the stars shine brightest in Augusta.
How could golf get creative to keep interest throughout the year, while not watering down the foundation of its current setup? The answer is tricky. Star players make enough money today to where the primetime McIlroy-Fowler match wasn’t necessary to either's bank account, unlike, for example, how "Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf" proved to be a windfall for previous generations. Match play offers a chance to script matchups, but the grind and scheduling issues with the current WGC event haven’t provided the ratings boon either. Even viewership in the
“silly season” of golf is dipping, with the most visible event now being Tiger Woods’ Hero World Challenge, a traditional stroke-play invitational.
Is there an alternative event for golf? Is it attainable? Without a sponsor with a lot of money, the answer to the second question is no, but perhaps finding the answer to the first question would provide the motivation to affect change.
Let me offer some possible solutions:
An In-Season Skills Competition – For 21 years, the off-season included an evolving version of this, best known for Peter Jacobsen’s quick wit and personality. In the beginning, it was all about skills. It jumped the shark a bit by bringing in celebrities, even seeing Mark McGwire win it all in 2003, and ended its run
in 2012 after several years of pairing pros together.
It feels like there is still a market for this, but perhaps in the middle of the season. Find a week with a strong tournament roster and set it up for a Tuesday after a pro-am. Let the pros wear shorts, backwards hats or whatever makes them comfortable. With the growth of TopGolf, perhaps even host it there as a crossover for the casual player. Make it a mix of the World Long Drive competition and Drive, Chip and Putt, only for the world’s best. It seems like a couple of PGA Tour tournaments could work to set something like this up, benefiting both charities and the attention on the tournament.
A Dream Pro-Am – There may only be one course that makes this work, but if Augusta National is the
great white whale for amateurs, and the membership is keen on continuing its role as global ambassadors of the game, why not offer a few chances for the common man (or woman) to play with his/her favorite golfer? Make it a global feel, where Rory gets to give an Irishman a tour. Maybe they play an 18-hole match against Adam Scott and somebody who won the right to travel from Australia.
It could be at Pebble Beach, Pinehurst or any other major venue as well, and it's probably not a live event (think: reality show), but you’d imagine the human interest of watching “hacks like us” on TV playing with their heroes would be amazing. Plus, watching the world’s best haggle over strokes would be amusing.
A Media Battle – Max Homa dropped this reoccurring idea on Twitter a few weeks ago and the traction it got was instant. Have all the major golf media networks/outlets field pro-am teams in a tournament.
Imagine watching CBS’s Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo climb the leaderboard to overtake NBC’s Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller. The possible teams are endless, and probably don’t get casual golf fans interested, but what if the stars were there to call the action? For one day, Jordan Spieth takes David Feherty’s remote pack and gets to provide analysis, with Craig Parry in the booth breaking down Miller’s swing.
HORSE – The European Tour was brilliant with the online marketing of golfers taking on trick shots, from skipping balls across a lake to sound a gong, to skeet shooting in the desert. Trick shot artists in the U.S. are all over YouTube, and while most aren’t done in one take, simply executing difficult shots is a gorgeous thing to watch. Why not take the most gifted of them all and create some games of HORSE to test the limits?
Bubba Watson could challenge Phil Mickelson to hook a pitching wedge off pine straw 50 yards. The possibilities are endless.
At the end of the day, the ideas above take an incredible amount of timing, infrastructure, money and imagination. All of that comes with no guarantee somebody would actually watch. But, as the world admires the shotmaking this week at Augusta, and the golf community hustles to keep their attention beyond one week in April, perhaps an outside-the-box idea will spring up that keeps the spotlight a little brighter on the sport.