THE BBC’S ever-dwindling golf coverage was dealt a severe blow yesterday when it was announced that from next year it will be BSkyB, and not the terrestrial channel, who will screen live broadcast from all four rounds of the Masters.
The corporation has been the host channel of the Augusta showpiece for the last 24 events, but now will only have live footage from the weekend action. The Independent first reported back in March that the BBC were resigned to losing out to Sky and at least some of their fears were confirmed when the satellite company won the rights to show the action from the Wednesday through Sunday.
Sky will also be permitted an extra hour of live coverage on the Thursday and Friday - Augusta has famously always limited the airtime - as well as the par-three contest on the eve of the event.
The BBC's contract expired after this year's Masters and talks took place during and after that tournament. Sky outbid the BBC in 2007, the last time the deal was up for negotiation, and inevitably did so once again this time around as the corporation prepares for a freezing of the licence fee.
The discussions were understood to be tense, with Sky understood to be close to walking away from the table at one point unless they could secure at least two days of exclusive broadcasts. But Augusta - who were seeking the cake-and-eat-it scenario with the extra Sky finance while keeping the wider BBC audience - eventually found their compromise.
The mood in Murdoch Towers yesterday was understandably one of joy after finally securing the season's curtain-raising Major they have chased for so long. "Sky Sports is now the only place to see all four days of the Masters, live," said their managing director, Barney Francis. "Sky Sports has enjoyed a great partnership with golf for nearly two decades. We follow a hundred different tournaments each year, from five different continents, and are excited that the Masters is now at the heart of this calendar."
Indeed, Sky do enjoy something of a stranglehold on golf coverage, with next month's Ryder Cup and the three majors played in the States - the USPGA, the US Open and now the Masters - all on their books. Furthermore they host the bulk of the European Tour and, since the collapse of Setanta, the US Tour as well. The BBC still retain the rights to show The Open, and this looks safe as it is part of the Government's "crown jewels" - the sports events that must be shown on terrestrial TV.
They first screened the Masters in 1967 and have shown every event since 1986 when they wrested the coverage back off Channel 4. With viewing figures over four million the loss of coverage is a not only a setback for the BBC but also for golf fans without access to the paid-for channels. The BBC's fairway fare is now paltry to say the least.
Five years ago they showed 30 days of live golf coverage every 12 months. This year it had dropped to 16 and now in 2011 it will be down to 14, under half where it was in 2005. And, perversely, British golf has rarely been stronger.
In truth, the BBC were for a long time resigned to losing the Masters and the relief fairly rang through the director of sport's statement yesterday. "We are delighted that this new deal enables us to continue this relationship," said Barbara Slater. "It means terrestrial audiences can continue to enjoy live coverage of the concluding rounds of this hugely prestigious tournament on BBC TV, alongside our comprehensive coverage on radio and online."
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Nine points was Europe's largest winning margin in the cup, recorded in Michigan in 2004 and again in County Kildare two years later.