I’ve spent the past week asking myself this question: How can we duplicate the success of the Masters in golf? It is a fruitless exercise in many ways, but one answer came to me in an odd way on Sunday. That answer: Harbour Town.
Answer another question: Why did you tune in to watch the RBC Heritage? There is a good chance that your answer involves one of the following keywords: lighthouse; gorgeous views; tight course; railroad ties.
Your answer, unless you tuned in very late on Sunday, wasn’t Wesley Bryan, Luke Donald or Ollie Schniederjans. That isn’t a knock on the players, but it's the reality of why we watch sports in the first place. Unless the storylines compel us to watch, we tune in because we already know something. We are creatures drawn to familiarity.
Back to the Masters, where Sergio Garcia’s win still resonates a week later. Some watched for vindication. Others watched for turmoil. Most watched for the greenness, the rolling hills, the second shot at 15, the tee shot at 16, the tight drive at 18. You tuned in knowing what you were looking for.
In psychology, this is known as the mere exposure effect. Simply having experience, even minimally, makes us more likely to be attracted to a stimulus the next time we see it. We are more likely to watch the RBC Heritage because of what that lighthouse provides in our memory. It also helps to explain why the Masters is the greatest tournament of the year.
The season’s first major is the only tournament of the year that combines the pressure of a major with a consistent golf course. Our anticipation for the tournament is heightened because we (think we) know what will happen. It allows us to look ahead with confidence.
What can be learned from this? The Heritage has become a success in the post-Masters wake because of its uniqueness and familiarity. It is a course unlike any other on Tour, with visual highlights that capture return eyeballs.
This also explains how The Players Championship can earn the same rating on television as The Open Championship. We know TPC Sawgrass in and out, especially the closing stretch. We want to see the island green, no matter the players.
The history of rotating courses for the other major championships is rich, and I am not suggesting we get away from the rotas that define those championships. Ratings, however, drive decision making and money is the great motivator. Will the USGA tighten its visits to, say, just four courses? Would a quartet of Pebble, Winged Foot, Bethpage and Olympic Club garner familiarity and more favorable viewership? Will a (reported) spring move for the PGA Championship be benefitted by a three-course rotation?
As governing bodies chase the great white whale of perfect television ratings, this psychological question may percolate for a while.
The Other Winner
During the season, I will offer up one player who, while not winning, escaped unnoticed with a big finish.
Kevin Kisner: The final-round 74 stings at Harbour Town, but it’s the winner, Wesley Bryan, that should have Kisner more excited. So far in 2017, good play is being rewarded. Adam Hadwin and Bryan were the most consistent players without a win and then punched it through. Kisner seems to be next.
Only two players internationally (Justin Rose and Thomas Pieters) have earned more world golf ranking points in 2017 without a win than Kisner. Only one player (Gary Woodland) has earned more FedEx Cup points in 12 starts without a win than Kisner. Yes, winning takes something special beyond good form, but it generally follows good play. Kisner is due for his next professional win.