On Sunday 12 February 2017, golf’s European Tour unveiled a ‘revolutionary and novel short form of the game’ which is designed to ‘embrace innovation and originality in professional golf’. The first GolfSixes event will take place in North West London on 6-7 May 2017 and will feature two-man teams from 16 European nations. The teams will compete in an initial group stage on the first day that is ‘similar to the UEFA Champions League football group stages’ followed by knock-out stages on the second day.
Golf is a sport that is famous for respecting and protecting its origins; the current form of the game is believed to have originated from a game played in Scotland during the 15th Century. As a result, golf has become known for its long-standing (and sometimes peculiar) traditions, both on and off the greens. See, for example:
- Rule 23/10 of the R&A’s Rules of Golf & Golf Equipment which provides that if your ball gets embedded in a piece of fruit you must play the ball/fruit as it lies or declare it unplayable i.e. the fruit is not a ‘loose impediment’ for the purposes of Rule 23; and
- The fact that, since 1952, the previous winner of The US Masters has hosted (and paid for) a ‘Champions Dinner’ on the Tuesday before the next edition of the tournament begins.
Golf has also, at times, attracted negative headlines for its resistance to reform to meet modern social norms. See, for example, Muirfield Golf Course’s much publicised and commented upon decision from May 2016 which saw Muirfield refuse to change its rules to allow female members.
Against this traditional and somewhat inflexible backdrop it is legitimate to ask why the European Tour has developed GolfSixes at this stage. Some of the answer to that question may lie in reports that participation rates among 18-34 year olds have declined and that the (lengthy) traditional forms of golf are struggling to attract and maintain fans’ interest. Both of these factors have led to golf clubs struggling to retain membership and to remain profitable.
During Sunday’s announcement, the Chief Executive of the European Tour, Keith Pelley, was clear that one of the purposes of GolfSixes was to broaden the appeal of the sport to the ‘millennial demographic’ by having an ‘interactive digital experience fans will enjoy on site and the innovative television coverage people will enjoy at home’. Pelley, who took up the position of Chief Executive in 2015, has become known as ‘something of a visionary in golf’ following his decisions to introduce a measure allowing players to wear shorts during practice rounds and to feature innovative six-hole ‘shootouts’ during certain tournaments. In other words, therefore, GolfSixes has been devised by Pelley and the European Tour to meet the demands of an ever modernising fan base and to ensure that the sport maintains its popularity in an increasingly diverse and competitive sporting landscape.
Golf is not the only sport that is experimenting with new forms of the game. Sports Shorts recently wrote about Nitro Athletics, a new and innovative athletics team event being fronted by Usain Bolt and devised by Athletics Australia supported by the Australian Government. Though Nitro Athletics was devised by a national association (and GolfSixes by a professional tour), each tournament seeks to address the issue of re-engaging and growing the sports’ respective fan base and to increase the attractiveness of the sport, both generally and commercially. The results of the inaugural Nitro Athletics event in Melbourne are certainly impressive: during the three nights of competition the 8,000 seater stadium in Lakeside was at or near capacity and reached 1.4 million viewers in Australia in one night. This is a stark contrast to the Sydney Track Classic held in March 2016 which was reported to have only had 150 fans in the stand.
As a keen (but terrible) golfer, this author will be following the impact and success of GolfSixes closely. However and though the full tournament regulations for GolfSixes do not appear to have been published, it does not seem likely that female golfers will be able to participate. This is not least because the ladies professional tour is organised by a wholly independent body, the Ladies Professional Golf Association. In light of golf’s presence in the Olympic Programme and the IOC’s Agenda 2020 recommendations that: (i) the Olympics move from a sport based programme to an event based programme, and (ii) that mixed-gender team events are to be encouraged, (see recommendations 10 and 11), this author would argue that a mixed team event would be a welcome next step in the ‘innovation and originality in professional golf’. Furthermore, if GolfSixes as a mixed team format were to be adopted by national golf clubs, this author would be significantly closer to enjoying the benefits of half decent off-the-tee driving distance!