Does Golf Need More Formats Like GolfSixes?
Article by Will Trinkwon
As a sport, golf has its fair share of problems. I know it, you know it. And the average person, who associates it with out of date dress codes, fusty traditions and everything that ensures that a good walk gets spoiled certainly knows it. The main complaints, from among golfers and non-golfers alike, are that rounds are too long, and that the sport is not dynamic enough to attract and maintain a young audience.
Finding a solution to these issues is the aim of the European Tour’s most recent innovation, the GolfSixes tournament. Founded in 2017, GolfSixes aims to shake up the way golf is traditionally played and to offer an alternative to the stereotypes and long rounds which have sadly become associated with the modern game. The format of GolfSixes is simple. As its name suggests, the tournament comprises of a round robin followed by a knockout portion. Every match takes place over just six holes and a 30 second shot limit ensures that the pace of play remains quick. The format is greensomes and players compete in teams of two grouped around nationalities. The competition aims to do for golf what 20-20 did for cricket, providing a fast-paced and more exciting alternative to the much slower traditional game.
All this is at least the theory. But how does it work out in practice? Well, as far as the pace of play issue is concerned, I’m pleased to be able to report that GolfSixes comes up to the mark. Whilst I enjoy 18 hole matches as much as the next guy, I agree that the game as it's currently played is too long and can sometimes lack drama. Especially on a packed course, a full 18 holes can feel like a slog, and with professional golf tournaments often averaging over five-hour rounds, the problem is as bad if not worse when you’re watching the sport on TV. Six hole matches such as GolfSixes offer an antidote to this. Because of their relative brevity, they feel peppy and fast-paced, and with the presence of 30 second shot limits, offer a welcome improvement on the typically slower rounds that have regrettably become de rigueur on TV. The difference between the pace of play at GolfSixes and a regular PGA or European Tour event is night and day. At least in principle, I’m firmly on the side of the former.
So far so good then. But what about the entertainment value? Is there a danger that an event that’s so short may be too brief to be worthy of interest? From my (admittedly very brief) experience of watching GolfSixes, this critique unfortunately carries some weight. The flip side of rapidly sped up play is irrelevance, the action can feel like its over before its even begun, and six-hole matches, especially when the format is greensomes, come perilously close to this territory. If one team gets hot and the other is not, a match can be over in just under an hour – roughly the same as half time in a football match. If the quality of the golf is really good, this may not be such a big deal. But as someone attuned to the 18-hole format, the six holes (and sometimes less) which pass muster for GolfSixes can’t help but feel a little abridged.
You get the impression that the organisers are well aware of this problem – they’ve certainly tried hard to liven things up. The first thing that strikes you when you tune in to GolfSixes is the holiday like atmosphere of the crowds. They’re not disrespectful, but the ambiance is a far cry from the stolid and sometimes buttoned-up quiet which is still the norm for most events on the European and PGA Tours. Whilst I agree that golf desperately needs making less fusty, however, I’m not sure that the organisers have got things quite right. In what I imagine was a bid to seem ‘cool’, the European Tour has chosen former All Star Family Fortunes presenter Vernon Kay to highlight the GolfSixes coverage. Kay’s been commentating on golf for a while now, and has adapted himself well to the sport, but he’s not exactly Peter Alliss. Nor, more damningly, is he by any stretch of the imagination, ‘cool’. I’m happy to grant him a certain frumpy charm, but if this is the best that the European Tour can think of to try to broaden golf’s appeal among the youths then they really need to reassess their strategy. Ditto for the campy pop songs that were blaring around the GolfSixes course, and the panoply of corny, pink number six-shaped mascots. This stuff is nothing more than padding. There are better ways to engage young audiences.
Compared to GolfSixes’s really key shortcoming, however, these issues are just venial sins. The real problem with GolfSixes, at least in its current form, is the quality (or lack of it) of the players. I’ve got nothing but respect for all professional golfers, but when Thongchai Jaidee (one of the winners of the 2019 event) is its most high-profile player, any tournament is going to struggle. It’s a sad fact of economics, but Tom Lewis does not move the needle like Rory McIlroy. And until some of the game’s biggest faces start playing, GolfSixes will struggle to find the viewership that it (perhaps) deserves. Sports fans tune in for star power – witness the furore that surrounds figures like tennis’s Roger Federer and, in our own sport, Tiger Woods. The lack of such players at GolfSixes Cascais was palpable and the novelty of the six-hole format, which leaves something to be desired anyway, isn’t enough to cancel this out.
But perhaps GolfSixes real legacy isn’t as a professional golf tournament at all. Not many people are aware of this, but the European Tour event in Cascais has recently been supplemented by a junior competition in England. The GolfSixes league pits club’s junior golfers against other young players in six hole Texas scrambles, providing a swift-paced and frankly less back-breaking alternative to traditional 18 hole games. The results have been impressive. Since last May, 24 leagues were staged across 22 UK regions, involving 102 golf clubs and 1,160 juniors playing 161 fixtures. Of these players, almost 25% of them were girls and the overall increase in membership at the clubs that took part was 34%. It’s still early days for the initiative, but its in the junior ranks rather than the professional ones, where, in my view, reduced six hole matches are most likely to thrive. It’s the GolfSixes League, not the GolfSixes Cascais, where the real fruits of the European Tour’s innovation can be found.
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