No question, golf has never been bigger. Yet the pro game
remains something less than a big-time sport.
In the last decade, golf's appeal to baby boomers and the game's
clean image have helped make it a more popular spectator sport
than second-tier games such as hockey, tennis and boxing. Next
year, when the PGA Tour's new television contract kicks in,
prize money will go up by more than 30%, making the stakes in
golf closer to those in the big three of baseball, football and
For golf to fill out a foursome of big-time sports, though, it
must evolve from a gentlemen's game to an athlete's game; from a
sport stymied by tradition to one streamlined by innovation;
from squeamish to honest; and from bland to stimulating. Here
are four ways to make that happen.
PLAY LONG BALL. Baseball has the home run, football the bomb and
basketball the dunk, all of which showcase power and
explosiveness. Golf has the long drive but does a better job
minimizing a big hitter's advantage than showcasing this
crowd-pleasing skill. The narrow setups of most
courses--especially for the U.S. Open and the PGA--conspire
against a long driver. When the width of the landing area for a
tee shot of 300 yards is narrower than it is for a drive of 260
yards, the risk simply isn't worth the reward. As a result,
players with a capacity for brilliance are frustrated, and the
battle too often goes to a straight-hitting plodder.
Given an equal measure of control, touch and judgment, the most
powerful golfers should win more often, which is the way it's
supposed to happen in big-time sports.
CREATE SEPARATE RULES. Top golfers contend that advances in
equipment--especially in the ball--have neutralized the
advantage the best ball strikers once had. That point is
debatable, but a larger one shouldn't be: Pro golf, like other
big-time sports, should make its own rules.
A uniform tournament ball that wouldn't go as far as current
models would bring back the importance of the driver. Such a
ball would also make players hit more long-iron approaches, the
shots that separate the men from the boys. Legislating a
tournament ball would surely have the ball manufacturers in a
tizzy, but if pro baseball, football and basketball can
establish their own standards for balls, why can't golf?
IMPROVE THE TELEVISION COVERAGE. The fact that comedians still
make fun of golf's whispering announcers and endless shots of
players putting is proof enough that telecasts need an upgrade.
First, a vote for boom mikes or similar sound technology.
Hearing what a player says--to his caddie, to himself, to the
golf gods--can be dramatic, revealing and fun. The single-best
TV moment in golf this year occurred during the third round of
the Masters when Fred Couples striped a perfect second shot to
the green at the par-5 13th. As he watched his ball fly toward
the flag, CBS caught the normally nonchalant Couples saying,
"Oh, baby!" As for the inevitable profanity that the mikes will
catch, golf could do with a little true grit.
Second, so-called analysts must break the locker room code of no
criticism. Big-time audiences will--and big-time players
should--understand that the object is not to ridicule or
embarrass a competitor but to provide insight.
MAKE STATISTICS MEANINGFUL. The Tour has the capacity and can
afford to chart every shot of every tournament. So it should. The
uses for such data would be limited only by the imagination. For
example, fans could learn how often a player hits the green with
every club in his bag, how close to the pin he puts his ball from
100 yards and the odds of his making a putt from 15, 10 or five
feet. Information leads to knowledge, and the more we know, the
more we can appreciate. The game will remain a mystery but a more
The Tour must do more than simply say, "These guys are good."
Instead the message should be, These guys are great athletes.
That's what big time is all about.
Golf Plus will next appear in the Nov. 23 issue of SPORTS
gods--can be dramatic and revealing.