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 basketball.
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 mat 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 interesting one.
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.