Two Key Lessons Golf Can Learn From a Compelling Exhibition

May 27, 2020
4 min

Last Sunday’s match featuring Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning drew an average of 5.8 million viewers, becoming the most-watched golf telecast in cable television history.

The rain-soaked affair peaked at 6.3 million viewers, clearly drawing considerable attention from the sports-starved masses. These substantial numbers even eclipsed final-round viewership for last year’s Open Championship and PGA Championship, two majors that lacked drama and star-power down the stretch. 

When reading the tea leaves about what this means for golf, we all need to proceed with caution. The event featured four of the most popular athletes of their generation, at a time when seemingly everyone is at home searching for entertainment. Ratings for The Last Dance documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls pulled nearly identical numbers on five consecutive Sundays. The NFL Draft shattered all expectations when an average of 15.6 million watched the first night. NASCAR and UFC, two of the most popular sports operating at the moment, have also enjoyed increases. 

But regardless of what kind of bump they received versus typical ratings, there are plenty of positives to share and lessons to learn. Chief among them is that golf taking the sporting spotlight at a time when 97 percent of courses throughout the U.S. have opened will, at the very least, convince some to go to a driving range for an afternoon rather than watching another hour of Netflix. That slight residual effect could be a continuing factor in June as the PGA Tour hopes to be playing while the four major professional team sports debate a return. 

According to the National Golf Foundation, attracting new golfers has been a bright spot over the past two weeks. 

“Course operators are telling us they are seeing lots of new faces, and retailers are saying they are moving an unusually large number of beginner (boxed) sets of clubs,” said NGF’s CEO Joe Beditz. “There seems to be a surge in participation among beginning golfers and those who haven’t played in a while.” 

Putting aside the hopes for introducing beginners to the game, there were two key lessons from The Match found in both format and presentation. 

From talking to golfers around the country over the past year, my sense is that traditional stroke play is no longer being viewed as the only “proper” way to play golf. It’s still the king for competitions at the highest level, but there is a significant push for more recreational match play, alternate shot and games where a couple of bad holes won’t keep you from being able to enjoy the round. Such feelings are so strong that courses are even being built to support different formats — Ohoopee Match Club in Cobbtown, Ga., was designed by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner in 2017 with the specific purpose of being used for match play. It’s indicative of a larger movement for different formats to become normalized. 

What better stage to promote different forms of the game than having Woods and Manning go up against Mickelson and Brady in modified alternate shot over the final nine holes? The opening nine of best ball went along slowly as Brady and Manning struggled to keep the ball in play, but the alternate shot portion really showed how quick the game goes when it’s four players using two golf balls. 

It’s also one of the most relatable formats. On the par-4 10th hole, a poor Mickelson approach had left Brady with a tricky shot just right of the green, while a solid strike from Manning allowed Woods to have a great look at birdie from about 20 feet. Brady putted from off the green to three feet and Woods missed, halving the hole. The beauty of golf is that an 8-handicap golfer, in any given moment, can be just as great as a 15-time major champion. In that format, they found occasional equal footing with all four players having to contribute.

Of course it was fun because of the players involved, but the game itself was engaging. Just like we see in the Ryder Cup, showcasing something other than stroke play can only help courses become more innovative. 

The other lesson, which was incredibly powerful, came with the telecast itself. Granted, this event was an exhibition with no intention of being too self-serious, but the tone made a massive difference. 

Longer podcast-style stories were told in-between shots — Brady explaining how former New England Patriots teammate Drew Bledsoe pulled a “purple dye in the socks” prank on him his rookie year ranked among the highlights — and having additional player audio created an added layer of intrigue. Justin Thomas, making his announcing debut, added just the right amount of context without wasting words. It’s a shame he has another 20 years of competitive golf ahead of him, because he would make a tremendous commentator. 

Not every broadcast should look like what we watched on Sunday, but anyone who produces golf content should have been taking notes. The golf spoke for itself and created one of the more engaging environments we’ve seen over the past few years. 

Whether Sunday’s event impacts golf long-term is questionable, but the ethos of it is a great snapshot of what makes this game beautiful. 

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