The 148th Edition of the British Open is being played this week in Portrush, Northern Ireland. As I write this, American JB Holmes is currently leading the second round on -8, with Englishman Tommy Fleetwood and Irishman Shane Lowry close behind on -7. But I don’t really care. Why? Golf is widely regarded, among everyone except golf fans, as one of the least interesting sports it’s possible to find on your TV. This has even got to the point where the boring dad who falls asleep watching golf is a common, even overused, cliche. There are many reasons for this, so let’s get straight to the point:
It’s incredibly slow
Because golf requires so much walking between shots, the TV spectator would have to spend the vast majority of their time waiting. Many golf fans would presumably counter this argument by saying that this isn’t true for the fans that actually attend the competitions – they get to walk around the course following their favourite players, so the wait doesn’t feel like a wait. But those fans aren’t who golf broadcasters need to be appealing to; they would watch golf regardless, and they’re not even watching the broadcasting because they’re at the course. Television spectators would just have to watch their players slowly ambling along the fairway most of the time, and commentators would have nothing to talk about. Thankfully, golf broadcasters have attempted to solve this problem: they have cameras following all the players, so that the TV shows whoever happens to be taking a shot at that time. But that causes a whole different problem…
It’s very difficult to keep track
Rather than watching one or two players, you’re watching everyone at once. This is great in terms of watching more actual golf rather than watching walking, but how can you stay on top of everything that’s going on? Unless you’ve been watching from the start, or you’ve watched a lot of golf before, it’s nearly impossible to know whether a shot was a good one for that player or not. You can’t gauge the form of the players, so you have to rely on the commentators, which gets confusing as two near-identical shots have different reactions. One shot, onto the edge of the green, is a great shot, but another player after doing the same and landing in the same place has made a disappointing shot for only being on the edge of the green. Huh? Of course, this makes sense based on some players being better than others, but you can’t see that for yourself, you have to rely on the commentators – so you might as well just listen to it on the radio.
How difficult is it?
Like all top sportspeople, golfers make golf look very easy. But this is confused by the way TV spectators can’t actually tell how difficult a shot, especially a drive, is supposed to be. We can’t see how long each hole is, the shape, the bunker locations, we can only see the players and what’s behind them. This is something in which following a player walking around the course would actually have an advantage – the hole could be shown in between strokes as a TV graphic so we can see what the player is actually trying to do. As it is, the coverage zooms between different players, on different holes, so unless you have the entire course memorised, you can’t understand whether something is challenging.
So what would make it better?
I had a quick google for golf variations that I could recommend instead. It came up with a few goodies and a few rubbish ones.
The first few were variations in the way you keep score, which isn’t helpful. It wouldn’t make it more exciting to watch. The next few are variant rules you can use for playing golf for betting. Again, they don’t seem to change the way golf is actually played, although they sound intriguing anyway and have very strange names. In Bingo Bango Bongo (I’m serious), points are awarded for getting on the green first and being closer to the hole than your opponent, and in Extreme Battle Piff Paff Poof (I’m not joking about these names, look), it appears to be pretty much the same as BBB except you can remove some of your opponent’s clubs.
But there were some more radical variations which are apparently quite popular. Speed Golf mixes golf with running: you compete not just on how few strokes you take, but also on how fast you can complete the course. Every minute you take is added to your final stroke total to give you your final score. If you find sports like long-distance running or cycling appealing, it might look quite fun:
It’s easy to imagine golf carts with cameras following these players around the course, like motorcycles following cyclists around the Tour de France. The coverage would be similar, and you can have a graphic on the side of the screen showing the players’ scores increasing with time and shots live. It wouldn’t be a race, because it would be difficult to all be playing the same hole at the same time, but it would make the overall scores easier to follow and it would look a lot more intense. Clearly, this is the golf variant that should be in the Olympics, not regular slow golf.
Alternatively, the European Tour’s attempt at spectator-friendly golf is GolfSixes. It also has some good ideas:
The GolfSixes tournament is a straightforward 16-team competition, with a group stage and then straight knockouts. Countries are represented by a pair of players, who hit shots alternately against another country, with the winner being who can win the most holes after 6 holes.
This solves a lot of problems. Firstly, it’s obvious what a player needs to do to proceed to the next stage: it depends on their and their opponents’ performance, not on the performance of 60 other players we can’t see. Secondly, it is much faster – 6 holes obviously only taking 1/3 of the time it would take to complete 18. Thirdly, though, having 6-hole games would theoretically make golf far easier to follow for TV spectators. I have never watched it (I only found out about it through this research) but I suppose a GolfSixes tournament could have 3 games on at a time, one played at holes 1-6, one at 7-12, and one at 13-18. If they’re coordinated effectively, there would always be someone taking a shot at any one time. Although this would still mean there’s a bit of flipping around between 3 games, that’s a lot easier than the flipping around on regular golf coverage, and GolfSixes can be accompanied by better onscreen scoreboards.
Finally, although this wouldn’t apply in other GolfSixes tournaments, having just one pair represent each country helps to dilute the massively American-heavy leaderboards in most golf tournaments and the knockout format produces more surprising winners. The 2019 edition held in Portugal was won by Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee and Phachara Khongwatmai, who are ranked 433rd and 338th in the world respectively.
So, as far as I can see, Speed Golf and GolfSixes would both be much more exciting than regular golf. I could see myself becoming interested while watching one of those competitions, and I can see it being possible to start watching halfway through and understand what’s going on. Both of these variations need to be amplified and given more coverage to propel them to the mainstream, and one of them should definitely replace or at least go alongside traditional golf in the Olympics.
The natural evolution of Speed Golf and GolfSixes would, I suppose, be SpeedGolfSixes, which would probably involve even more teamwork than GolfSixes and would be even quicker than Speed Golf due to a shorter course. And a shorter course would make it more accessible to regular golfers, rather than just the long distance runners who would be able to play Speed Golf. An interesting idea. But one step at a time – for now, the two need to be encouraged individually.