Olympic Golf Lessons From Rio

What can Golf learn from being part of the Olympic Games

olympic golf lessonsPeter Dawson, the ex R&A Chief Executive, must have had mixed emotions on Sunday evening as he presented Justin Rose with his prize for winning the first Olympic Golf Tournament in 112 years.

On the one hand, there he was, on live TV, congratulating a British winner, with a global TV audience measured in billions. On the other hand, he must have been reflecting where did it all go wrong for the R&A?

18 months ago the R&A announced their decision to switch coverage of arguably the greatest golf competition in the world, The Open, from free to air, to subscription TV. The final round of the 2016 tournament at Royal Troon was viewed by 1.1 million people via Sky TV, which represents an 80% decrease from the 5.5 million who watched the final round on the BBC in 2014 (the last time the event finished on a Sunday). Even the 2015 tournament final round, which was played on the Monday, managed to garner 4.7 million viewers via the BBC.

It has to be acknowledged, that the coverage provided by Sky was universally applauded as a vast improvement on what was previously on offer from the BBC. However, a better viewing experience for just 20% of the previous audience, is not how to grow the game. And let’s remember, “Growing the game” was the public claim of Peter Dawson and the R&A when defending their decision to switch broadcasters.

In these terms, it’s hard to see how anyone could successfully portray those viewing figures as being helpful to growing the game.
So, aside from perhaps a very expensive lesson regarding choice of TV broadcast partner that could take years for the game to recover from, what else can the world of golf learn from being part of the Olympic Games?

8 Olympic Golf Lessons

olympic golf lessonsIf the host broadcaster does not normally cover golf, then send your own production team to do it – there were too many occasions when the camera was staring at empty sky rather than the flight of the ball.

Staying on that theme, it’s notable that the BBC failed to send a commentary team to the Olympics (could that have been sour grapes over the earlier decision by the R&A to switch to another broadcaster?). The BBC managed to send 455 staff to Rio, you would have thought they could have smuggled in at least one person who knew about golf. The two ‘voices’ supplied by the Olympic Broadcasting Service managed to make even Monty seem like a good option. The one oasis of hope in this commentary desert was the appearance of Paul McGinley in the commentary booth during the first round of the Women’s event. His management company should simply grab a copy of that session and hawk it around the golf broadcasters as his showreel – he would be in demand for the rest of his life!

The games administrators want to boost awareness of the game and grow it around the world, just how big a task this is going to be was demonstrated by the amount of up of sports fans attending the event who don’t know about golf – for example, how many times did people pick up a ball and try to put it back on the fairway! The lesson here is that golf is not as important nor as popular as it thinks it is and we all have a long way to go in reaching new audiences and markets.

IoC Rule 40 is the biggest golf handicap going and as I’ve blogged about previously, it would not surprise me if it was a key reason for some male pro golfers behaving like spoiled brats in not turning up to take part. Let’s not allow them to forget what a unique and amazing experience they turned their back on.

The scourge of the idiotic “in da HOLE!” screamers reaches the furthest corners of the golfing universe – Course Marshalls should be given the power to eject anyone who can’t keep control of their own vocal chords.

The qualification criteria for the players was too complicated in a bid to make it as inclusive as it could be. Not even the commentators provided by the Olympic Broadcast Service could actually explain them without having to refer to notes. Sports fans get excited about the event when they know they are watching the world’s best – whatever the sport is. Including players simply to ensure that the number of countries involved is as high as possible dilutes the overall viewing experience. I believe, in preparation for Tokyo 2020, the governing bodies could look at adopting a points methodology akin to those used by The Race to Dubai, the FedEx Challenge or indeed the Ryder Cup.

The golf tournament seemed to be one of the few sports at the Olympics (trust me, I’ve done extensive research over the last 12 days) that failed to really exploit technology to improve the viewers experience. It would have been great to see more on course technology to make it more viewer friendly – only 2 or 3 holes had ProTracer set up to capture the flight of tee shots. And why did they not overlay a course marker, so that those unfamiliar with the course, and the game of golf (about 99.9% of total viewing audience) would have a greater idea of where the players were trying to hit their tee shots, for example.

Finally, I recognise that the IoC doesn’t like a sport to change it’s format for inclusion into the Olympic Games, but you have to question whether stroke play is the best tournament model to use. Why not adopt a matchplay model?

Perhaps a round robin format, before moving on to a knock-out stage for last 16, 8, 4 and 2. There would be more chance for potential upsets and it would keep more nations involved for longer. It’s a format that already exists on tour. The model could be used to host a mens, ladies and mixed pairs tournament. This format could also allow for more players to take part from more countries and would therefore address the need for a more tele-visual, ‘gladiatorial’ experience for the average passive TV sports fan, as well as widening the reach of interest – also known as ‘growing the game’.

Having said all that, I have to confess, I think overall the inclusion of golf in to the Olympic Games has been a success. I have long argued that it should have been for the amateur game, but I now think that it was right to have the pro game represented.

And as a very patriotic Brit, I’m immensely proud of Justin Rose winning the Gold Medal. And I’m writing this whilst dreaming of a medal for Charley Hull, who is currently in third place.

Now it’s up to all of us who love the game, and want it to grow, and need it to continue to grow, to do our best to leverage the heightened awareness generated, by the sport we love, being broadcast to 3.3 billion potential golfers. We need to take on board these 8 Olympic Golf Lessons and work collectively to move the game forward.

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