Kevin Markham assesses the European Tour’s innovations designed to sex up golf.
The Kaiser Chiefs are probably not words you expect to see in a column about golf.
The band famous for ‘I Predict a Riot’, ‘Ruby’, and ‘Oh My God’ does not contain any passionate golfers but, as the last putt rolls it at the BMW Championship this year, the boys will be tuning up for a celebratory gig in the exclusive setting of the Wentworth Golf Club.
Thumping out their tunes amid the multi-million pound homes of Surrey’s stockbroker belt might seem an oddity for golf and the European Tour, but this is a new age.
“I’ll promise to not play golf if Rory McIlroy promises not to sing, though if he wants to get up and join us he’s more than welcome,” said Chiefs frontman, Ricky Wilson.
“With the important business of the golf out of the way, hopefully everyone will be in the mood for a bit of a party on the Sunday night.”
Yes, the European Tour is rattling the cage when it comes to fan engagement. A live gig by The Kaiser Chiefs is just one step in a new direction for the tour, now under the guidance of chief executive Keith Pelley.
Pelley has only been in the role since April 2015, but the changes he has been instrumental in introducing are stirring new conversations in clubhouses around the world.
In Ireland, we might look on with some bemusement at these efforts to attract fans. The Irish Open has lured large crowds in recent years.
The events at Royal Portrush (2013) and Royal County Down (2015) were sold out. Indeed, the Royal Portrush event was attended by over 112,000 and was the first European Tour event to be sold out.
The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, now in its third year, is proving to be a well-orchestrated and well-oiled machine. As part of the new Rolex Series, this year’s event at Portstewart will also see an already impressive prize fund (€4m in 2016) rise to an even heftier €6.6m.
That purse is sure to attract many more of the world’s best as part of a three-week links swing, which culminates with the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. Yes, it is more than likely that the 2017 Irish Open will be sold out, too.
Elsewhere on the European Tour, however, the crowds and prize funds are not as impressive… and especially when they move outside Europe.
The recent events in Dubai and Abu Dhabi cannot hope to lure the same number of fans — the audience simply isn’t there — but that doesn’t mean the European Tour and Pelley aren’t going to try some innovative ideas to make golf more entertaining for fans… and for players, too.
Throughout the week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, music was played on the range. The Pros seemed to enjoy the experience:
“It keeps you kind of relaxed,” said Dustin Johnson.
“Having a little music going kind of keeps the mood light. Hopefully, it will attract some other people to come out and watch and enjoy the game.”
There are plenty of pros who hit the range wearing headphones to help them cut out the noise and distractions and/or to help them relax, but they have selected music to suit their tastes.
It certainly suggests that the variety of music (from Calvin Harris to the Red Hot Chili Peppers) pumping out of the speakers on the driving range is aimed more at attracting fans.
Not every pro was enamoured, however.
“I didn’t like it on Tuesday,” said Paul Lawrie, the 48-year-old Scot who won the Open in 1999. “When they turned it down it was fine, but, before that, you couldn’t hear your caddie.”
As part of the European Tour’s committee, Lawrie actually approved the music on the range.
“You need to try [these ideas] to see if they work or not,” he said.
“Everyone seems to quite like it, but I’m just old.”
A further step might see music being played on the walkway to the 1st tee. There is room for all sorts of fun with this idea, as each golfer could find themselves assigned a signature tune. How about Eagles’ ‘Take it Easy’ for Ernie Els, or ‘Boom, Boom, Boom’, by the Outhere Brothers for Rory McIlroy, or Abba’s ‘The Winner Takes it All’, for Jordan Spieth.
And on the matter of all things Swedish, Henrik Stenson could be accompanied by Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’… infinitely more desirable than Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’, which is often played as the walk-on tune when he arrives on the 1st tee for exhibition matches.
“I’m all for it,” said the 2016 Open champion.
“I’m sure not everyone is going to be delighted, maybe, but I would imagine the majority of players and the majority of the fans will like it. It creates a nice atmosphere, and I think that could be a good way going forward.”
Whether this boxing match type atmosphere of having competitors arrive to music will catch on remains to be seen. Much will depend on whether it distracts players on the course.
Music on the driving range will continue, with Pelley targeting the European Tour’s Rolex Series (a minimum of seven events), which includes Portstewart (July 6-9). As long as Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ is played, Irish fans will be happy.
The BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, in May, is the first Rolex Series event of the year and music is now seen as an important part of the ‘fun factor’. Driving range music will, in Pelley’s own words, become “synonymous with golf”.
It is easy to applaud (or despair at) these efforts to make golf tournaments more vibrant affairs, but there is an important underlying motive. The number of golfers around the world has fallen dramatically. You only have to look at Ireland to see a decline that is mirrored elsewhere.
From a peak of 209,000 club members in 2007, membership now stands at 167,000. Despite snazzier clothing and, for the most-part, the relaxation of strict clubhouse policies, golf is still seen as elitist, expensive, and a game for the elderly.
Many pounce on issues such Muirfield voting to refuse female members as an example of how golf has failed to move with the times. This refusal saw Muirfield struck off the list of Open Championship venues, though a second vote has just taken place with the results due in mid-March.
The European Tour is attempting to lighten the mood, to make golf more relaxing, fun and attractive for everyone. Such efforts may attract more young people to the tournaments and, eventually, the game itself.
Of course, this is not specifically the responsibility of the European Tour — that’s for the unions — but it is about altering perceptions… and music is not the only change being introduced.
Tournament format is also being experimented with and last weekend’s ISPS HANDA Super 6 Perth saw something very different.
Following three days of stroke play, the top 24 golfers qualified for a final day of matchplay. It made Saturday’s ‘moving day’ an interesting affair, as golfers threw caution to the wind to be among the top 24.
The final day then presented a matchplay shoot-out, with each match contested over six holes. The eventual winner, Brett Rumford, had to win four matches to claim the title.
Another six-hole event will be held at The Centurion Club, outside London, in May. It is a very different format, being a fourball greensomes (Scotch foursomes — a team event where both partners get to hit a tee shot, while only one tees off in foursomes, with tee shot duties alternating from hole to hole), with teams from 16 countries being represented.
All competitors will wear microphones during play, which will make things interesting on snap hooks and bladed bunker shots, but it is further evidence of an experimental approach.
All in all, Pelley sees these changes as the most significant advancements in the Tour’s 44 years.
“It really has been a fun exercise to sit in a room and think about where this could go,” he says. “This is created for a younger audience, for people who haven’t necessarily experienced our game as much. We want to get them engaged.”
No doubt there will be the naysayers who see these innovations as making change for changes sake, but our sport is combatting a decreasing relevance and shaking things up is no bad thing.
Now, if only we could do something about slow play… I predict a riot.
Kevin Markham assesses the European Tour innovations designed to sex up golf
Having a little music going kind of keeps the mood light. Hopefully, it will attract some other people to come out.