How a one-off tournament eight years ago provided the impetus for widespread change in professional golf.
By TONY WEBECK
If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, it is little wonder professional golf has witnessed an explosion in alternative formats to the stock-standard 72 holes of strokeplay.
This week in Australia, we will conduct the ISPS Handa World Super 6 Perth tournament that mixes strokeplay with knockout matchplay a week after the ISPS Handa Vic Open, now a European Tour and LPGA Tour co-sanctioned event, that showcased men and women together across the 36 holes at Thirteenth Beach Golf Links near Barwon Heads.
The Australian tournament year kicked off with Blitz Golf at Curlewis and Glenelg where Ian Baker-Finch and Mike Clayton mixed it up with the ‘flat bellies’, while last year we saw the introduction of the Sanctuary Cove Shootout where 19 players teed off from the first hole of the Pines course and Adam Blyth was the man left standing on the 18th green.
Internationally the golf calendar now includes the Shot Clock Masters, Belgian Knockout, Golf Sixes, the Zurich Classic two-man team event and the International Crown featuring the leading female players.
While the traditions we hold most dear remain founding tenets of the game, in an age when attention spans have shrunk to a swipe left or right, getting eyeballs on golf and the associated sponsorship dollars required has never been more challenging. There will be some 500 four-round professional golf tournaments played around the world in 2019, so differentiation – or cut-through – outside the Major championships is becoming increasingly difficult.
The inspiration for many of these innovations has come directly from Australia and in particular long-time PGA Tour of Australasia tournament director Andrew Langford-Jones. Sitting at home watching four days of the 2009 Melbourne Cup Spring Carnival, Langford-Jones invested $2 on each of the 35 races conducted at Flemington Racecourse. Not a regular punter, Langford-Jones soon found himself cheering home horses he’d never heard of until five minutes prior and decided golf needed something similar.
And the Surf Coast Knockout was born.
Intended to be a one-day matchplay knockout tournament that would facilitate betting on matches at regular intervals, the excitement at the new format grew to the point that the Surf Coast Knockout expanded to include 54 holes of strokeplay, Order of Merit status and free-to-air television coverage.
“Peter O’Malley led by four shots after three days, shot three-under for six holes and got eliminated in the first round of matchplay by Scott Laycock, who needed a playoff just to make the final 32,” Langford-Jones recalls of the 2011 Surf Coast Knockout that would provide the foundation for the World Super 6 format.
“In my eyes that was the beauty of it, but if you’re a player who is leading by six, shoot three-under for six holes and get knocked out you probably don’t think it’s too crash hot.”
An adjustment made for the inaugural World Super 6 in 2017 designed to avoid a repeat of the ‘POM knockout’ sees the top eight players through 54 holes receive first-round byes before joining the sudden death phase of six-hole matches.
In the World Golf Championships realm, the format of the lone matchplay tournament has been adjusted to eliminate the possibility of big-name first-round casualties but Langford-Jones is adamant more needs to be done to engage with sometime golf fans.
“We haven’t really been able to fully embrace the gambling aspect, which is odd because just about every amateur has a bet every time they play,” Langford-Jones said. “We’ve got to create something that people watching at home on TV can get emotionally invested in by having a bet. And not having a bet on Thursday and waiting for a result on Sunday, we need something that has a result every 10 minutes.
“The event was designed like a Melbourne Cup carnival, so that people who had no idea could go along and have a bet and get emotionally involved in players they didn’t know so well. It’s a risk for the top players but for golf, it’s more fun for the punter. He might not see the top players in the world but there’s going to be a lot more excitement and if they want to have a bet they can.”
A regular on the European Tour for the past 15 years, Marcus Fraser last year played the World Super 6 in Perth, the Shot Clock Masters and Belgian Knockout and in January had his first taste of Blitz Golf at Curlewis Golf Club. He says that golf must try everything to find its equivalent to cricket’s Twenty20 format.
“T20 cricket has really set the standard in all sport so I think we need to try everything we possibly can to propel it to a similar position,” Fraser told Australian Golf Digest. “There’s got to be a lot of trial and error to find something that really takes off.”
Fraser will play the World Super 6 Perth tournament for the third straight year and believes the mix of strokeplay and matchplay is the type of format that can get a foothold around the world.
“Super 6 and Blitz Golf is definitely the way it’s going to go,” said Fraser, who was knocked out by Lucas Herbert in the second round of matchplay in Perth last year.
“We’re always going to have our four-round tournaments and national opens and Major championships, but new tournaments need to get really creative and have a different series of tournaments. Super 6 and Blitz Golf looks as though it will lead the way in trying to encourage that.
“It all comes back to time because that’s what we’re all short of. We need to be able to cram sport into a two or three-hour window and that’s what Blitz Golf and Super 6 does.”
Golf’s innovation nation
If Langford-Jones had had his way the Surf Coast Knockout at The Sands Torquay would have been an even more radically different event. He wanted bookmakers on course and even a circle on the green of a par 3 that would allow fans to bet whether a player would land their tee shot inside or outside the circle.
The brainchild of Simon Zybek, Blitz Golf is Australia’s latest contribution to new golf formats and in many ways Australian golf has led the way in tournament innovation worldwide. In-round interviews with players that have been commonplace in Australian tournaments for almost a decade are now happening on the PGA Tour in 2019 while the concept of a ‘shot clock’ was one that was floated by Langford-Jones six years ago at the Vic Open.
“We had a shot clock at the Surf Coast Knockout and we almost had it again at the Vic Open in 2012,” Langford-Jones explained. “When [European Tour chief executive] Keith Pelley came out here to Perth, I hammered him about bringing it into golf – into all events. The public now wants immediate action. Golf has become too slow for the younger generation and we need to bring something in like the shot clock.
“I always wanted TV to be able to do interviews during the round but the attitude of most players is that they are there to win a tournament, there to feed their family, to pay a mortgage. But more and more players have come to realise that they can promote their own image and get sponsorship if they have any personality.
“Eight years after we’ve done it, the PGA Tour is considering allowing players to be interviewed during rounds because it gives the punter at home some insight into the personality of the player and what they’re thinking and the emotions that he’s feeling when he’s out there. At the Vic Open we’ve got rid of the ropes to allow people to walk the fairways with the players and with $3 million in prizemoney, that’s now the richest tournament in Australia.
“Australian golf has led the world with player interviews, we’ve led the world with mixed format: men and women, the shot clock, the 6s – all those innovations came from us and the rest of the world is slowly adopting them.”
At the extreme end of the spectrum is ‘The Match’, the largely derided 18-hole, pay-per-view matchplay event between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in Las Vegas late last year. Far from deriding its staging – “Professional golfers probably should have funded The Match given the money Tiger and Phil have brought into golf” – Fraser says it is the type of concept golf needs to showcase more often.
“There should probably be more of it,” is Fraser’s take. “If you look at Tiger being back last year and winning the Tour Championship, all of a sudden golf is pretty exciting again.
“The Shot Clock Masters added a new element with the countdown and I think mics somehow on every bag where TV can tap into what is being said at any time would be great.
“Golf’s not like watching a game of Aussie Rules footy or V8 Supercars or a game of basketball. It’s just one of those sports where we need to do whatever we can to bring it to life. We’re always going to have our premier events around the world played over four rounds, but we need to be innovative and players are happy to try things at new events to see what works.”
Formula for 6s success a mystery
Entering just its third incarnation at Perth’s Lake Karrinyup Country Club, a short stroll down the honour roll provides little insight into the formula for success.
In 2017, West Australian Brett Rumford dominated the strokeplay to finish five shots clear at the end of 54 holes and went on to defeat 17-year-old Thai Phachara Khongwatmai 2&1 in the matchplay final. On the flip-side, Canadian Austin Connelly was one of six players to finish tied for second through 54 holes but couldn’t progress past the second round of matchplay.
“Golf is bigger than one person,” Rumford said after his victory. “If it’s going to grow the game and it’s more than just a golf tournament and it becomes an event in which we’re trying to grow this sport with a bit more thrill and excitement about it, then I think as a tour we’ve done a great job.”
Twelve months later, the winner took a vastly different path to the title. Kiradech Aphibarnrat only squeezed into the final 24 players to contest the matchplay section on Sunday after four trips down the 18th hole in Saturday afternoon’s playoff. On Sunday he defeated Ben Eccles, Yusaku Miyazato, Sean Crocker and Lucas Herbert before accounting for James Nitties 2&1 in the final.
But while it may have worked for Rumford the year prior, No.1 seed Prom Meesawat felt the fickle nature of the format, knocked out by local amateur Min Woo Lee in the second round.
World No.72 Thomas Pieters will make his first appearance at the World Super 6 this month but is no stranger to new formats after hosting the European Tour’s Belgian Knockout in his home country last year.
“I enjoyed playing and hosting the Belgian Knockout,” Pieters explained. “Different formats of the game are interesting and help engage the fans. I think these tournaments are helping move golf in a positive direction.”
Joining Pieters in the field will be England’s Tom Lewis, Spain’s Jorge Campillo and Kiwi No.1 Ryan Fox along with Victorian Lucas Herbert, who used his third-place finish at Lake Karrinyup last year to propel him towards a 2019 European Tour card.
“I love Lake Karrinyup and the fast-paced Super 6 format suits the way I like to play golf: aggressive!” said Herbert, who lost in the second round in 2017.
“I was able to turn a really good week in Perth into a pretty special year. I am looking forward to getting back there in February as a European Tour player and hopefully end the week a European Tour winner.”
But the way to make that happen remains something of a mystery.