It's tee-time for the lads

New TV channels and lad-mags are helping golf shake off its stuffy image, says Oliver Duff
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Indy Lifestyle Online
TO SOME journalists, the golf course - offering as it does hours of confidential chat with a valued contact - has always been as lucrative a source for scoops. But the media has never seemed to give a niblick for the sport itself. Until now.

First to recognise a renewed popularity in the game was the Golf Channel. Launched in November 2003, it claims to have more than 900,000 viewers. "Our coverage is about bringing a bit more energy to it," says Lee Kenny, the station's spokesman. "Sky and the BBC have done a good job on tournament coverage but people want to know how to emulate leaders, knock a few shots off the score and watch something that takes the stuffiness out of the game."

The marketing strategy is simple: tap into the five million golfers treading Britain's fairways. "It's traditionally very difficult to reach the affluent ABC1 male demographic," Kenny says. "Many of our viewers are 35 to 55, upscale men with very high disposable income. The average Golf Channel viewer travels six times a year for business and pleasure, has a luxury car and is a target for investment, insurance and credit-card companies. There's a lot of money in golf."

Now Ant & Dec are in on the act, landing a multi-million commission for their production company, Gallowgate, to film two teams of showbiz golfers compete for The Celebrity Cup. ITV will screen the event over a bank holiday later this year.

Leading the way in terms of style, if not audience, has been GolfPunk magazine. Edited by Loaded founder Tim Southwell, it is very much in the lads' mag mould: light-hearted banter and scantily attired women temper interviews and advice. Circulation has steadily grown since the first issue last March to 17,000, a significant achievement in a market where established titles sell between 50,000 and 100,000 copies.

This week GolfPunk goes monthly and Southwell hopes to lift sales past 30,000. Rival Total Golf also goes monthly in April, after four trial issues last year sold 22,000 copies a time, and editor Michael Harris says he will include more pictures of women alongside the instructive content to boost circulation: "The 55-year-old club member who dresses like Ronnie Corbett can't support golf for ever."

Southwell explains: "I wasn't aware there was anything wrong with golf magazines until I realised I hadn't bought one in almost 25 years of playing. They were formulaic, predictable and didn't accept the fact that golf is fun regardless of ability. Eight out of 10 golfers don't buy a golf magazine, and there's a reason for that."

The idea is to reach out to the country's 3.5 million casual golfers (as well as the younger, funkier club members) - those who have benefited from the explosion during the Nineties of pay and play, driving ranges and short courses.

Fans of GolfPunk's lighter approach include Radio 1 and Five Live DJ Spoony, who first played golf in 2001 after watching Tiger Woods.

"Golf is a definitely a cool thing to be doing now, and the media has to catch up," he says. "To say that is `dumbing down' is a term from snobs who want to prevent the person on the street understanding something."

Daniel Davies, producer of talkSPORT's Golf Show, says only an image change will save the game. "There's a whole new attitude in golf," he says. "More inclusive, more image-conscious. It's a welcome end to the image of a game run by men in tweed jackets. People just want a more relaxed environment where barriers to entry - class, money, ridiculous codes of conduct - have been broken. The media is crucial in this."

The golfing establishment - aside from when the R&A banned GolfPunk from Troon for its models' antics - has been receptive to change. Sandy Jones, chief executive of the Professional Golfers' Association, says: "Anything that brings visibility to the game and makes people more aware of golf has to be a good thing."