Tours need to drop bunker mentality and learn how to play together

New season highlights how US and Europe must unite more – getting Rory McIlroy in the same event is vital for future growth

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The Independent Online

As the European Tour contemplates the appointment of a new chief executive to shape the future of golf, it might consider inviting Sir Dave Brailsford on to its selection panel, assuming he is too busy to take the post himself, of course.

Having transformed the fortunes of British cycling, the head of Team Sky has turned his attention to a wider brief, unveiling a global vision for the sport’s development and growth. Brailsford wants the sport to reach a wider audience beyond the cycling priesthood. He wants a season with a start, middle and end, one that delivers a story that engages and is easy to follow.

To achieve this he has brought together cycling’s major teams under an umbrella organisation called Velon, which is essentially a joint venture involving the sport’s principal stakeholders. “If the teams unite and work collectively to make cycling better to watch and easier to understand, it’s to everyone’s benefit. It will encourage more fans to follow the  sport,” Brailsford said, in what ought to be a mission statement for golf.

For teams read tours, or more accurately the European and PGA Tours, golf’s big commercial drivers. Today in Johannesburg, Ernie Els tees off at the South African Open as the tournament “host”. The second oldest open after our own is seeking to reassert itself within the golfing spectrum via the brand power attached to the nation’s foremost golfer. It is not alone. The Irish Open has partnered with national treasure Rory McIlroy, and the Australian Open with luminary Adam Scott.

Over in Hawaii, the PGA Tour emerges from its winter slumber at an event grandly labelled the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Neither field features players packing the top of the rankings. McIlroy joined Scott, Martin Kaymer and Justin Rose in a list of 2014 winners electing not to crash through time zones in the Pacific. Masters champion Bubba Watson  at No 4 in the world is the highest-ranked player riding the surf.

McIlroy is barely out of bed in 2015 terms, hitting his first balls of the year this week after a month off. “First couple of swings after four weeks without touching a club were interesting,” McIlroy tweeted on Monday, indicating a set of priorities at odds with  the golfing calendar. Not a peep yet from Tiger Woods, who might not be seen until next month.

Perhaps the players who sell the game are telling the authorities something. Today’s events are separated by more than 11,000 miles and take their place as schedule fillers with little traction beyond their locale and nil relevance in the wider sporting scheme. In years gone by that was all that mattered, of course, events developing organically to satisfy indigenous interest and need. And then along came television to convert sporting values into commercial property.

While this has enriched the golfer beyond comprehension a generation ago, and administrators too, it has also changed the landscape to such a degree that it threatens not only the sustainability of the sport but its integrity too.

Both the major tours in Europe and the United States have become bloated. Europe has redrawn the map of the world in the mad race to keep pace with the commercial power of the United States and survives courtesy of events in the Middle and Far East, where nation states are coming to the game not  for the love of it, but as a marketing tool to get their faces out there.

Golf is not alone in riding this geo-political gravy train. Formula One is predicated on it, pricing out of the market its traditional hosts in Europe, who have no chance of competing with ambitious state purses willing to shell out $30m (£20m) a pop for a weekend of global visibility. And so the sound and fury of grand-prix engines rattle the ears of locals who know nothing of the endeavour, and  care not a jot about the winners and losers.

The post-war advent of televised sport gave birth to the notion of sports rights, a commodity to be bought and sold like any other, and changed the sporting world forever. Football was, and remains, the big driver of this phenomenon, having transformed the way it and all sports are organised, played, watched and administered.

Lesser beasts have had to adjust to survive, witness the move of rugby league from a winter to a summer pastime  19 years ago to gain a commercial foothold. Cricket is shifting towards a one-day, made-for-TV gig, with Test matches outside England and Australia losing significance by the year. New Zealand v Sri Lanka, anyone?

Golf sees its future and salvation in unchartered territories. Like the scramble for Africa among the European superpowers in the mid-19th century, the PGA and European tours are joined in the fight for territory beyond their borders. The return to Olympic participation in Brazil next year is seen as the key to sustained global expansion, with the unchartered continent of South America the next in line for colonisation.

The commercial case is unarguable, but the endless pursuit of new dollars comes at a cost. While the exporters are selling the idea of what golf is, and means, to a new audience, the old audience is struggling to keep pace. Participation figures are falling, with club memberships in England down more than 25 per cent over the past decade from 882,184 in 2004 to 675,000 in 2014.

The lack of enthusiasm for meeting the cost of membership, equipment upgrades and the time needed to complete a round is hardly countered by a professional product propped up by a schedule in which the superstars have little interest. McIlroy, Scott, Woods and the rest of the elite are increasingly shaping seasons around reduced activity. Their absence creates a two-tier experience with the lesser events unfolding in relative anonymity, barely serving trade interest and a long way from capturing the broader imagination.

The huge prize-pots in the United States, and the lesser sums available in Europe, are predicated on the capacity of broadcasters to attract advertising revenues, which in turn are based on the sports ability to draw a television crowd. You only have to look at the turnstiles in Malaysia, China, Qatar etc. to understand  how little cash comes through the gate.

For golf’s big beasts, and the audience, the only tournaments that matter are the four majors. Even the ridiculously lucrative Fed-Ex Cup Play-offs, shoehorned to conclude the PGA season in September, are a shot too far for many of the A-listers, who will cut what they can depending on how their numbers stack up. If the stars stay away, the viewers are sure to follow, an argument known only to well by broadcasters when Woods is resting.

The answer is greater collaboration between the two big tours, an understanding that the world is shrinking and that mutuality rather than independence is the way forward. There is already significant migration by the European cabal seeking to maintain a presence on both tours. It would not take much to formalise an elite global schedule to include golf’s blue-riband events, perhaps 15-20 embracing China, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East too, that commits the top players in the world.

There will still be a place for other events on tours serving regional interest but in time order and in a way that supports the grand plan. Our American brothers would have to leap on a plane more often but the rewards would ease their pain, and who knows, might even guarantee the future of the game.

Golf is blessed with a big identity forged through rich traditions, a deep history and global stars, but the sport has to make sense to a 21st-century audience that appropriates the action on the move via a handheld device. That audience needs to know what’s happening and where to look. That means having Els and Watson, not to mention McIlory, Woods, Scott, Rose et al, teeing off in the same time zone on the same course, not at opposite ends of the world.

“Collaboration is the cornerstone to positive change,” Brailsford said of his Velon initiative. “This is very exciting for professional cycling. It’s a big step towards the sport reaching its full potential. The teams involved in creating Velon have come together with a powerful shared vision to optimise the sport and develop new ways for it to grow.”

Sounds like a plan to me.


Five changes that can make a difference

European Tour is still looking for a successor to chief executive George O’Grady. A radical vision is required to keep golf at the forefront of the sporting canon.

Martin Slumbers assumes control of golf’s governing body the R&A in September from chief executive Peter Dawson. Slow play and ball technology should be first on his agenda.

This year sees the last of the anchored putter. Long handles are still permitted but after 31 December the club must swing without fixing to the body.

Proposed British Masters at Woburn in October doubles the events in the English heartlands to two, alongside the PGA at Wentworth. This is a smart move.

The cult of secrecy adopted by PGA Tour over disciplinary issues does not serve game well. Transparency is key to sound governance and developing trust.