Shackelford: Golf's desperate bid for attention puts game at risk

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Shackelford: Golf's desperate bid for attention puts game at risk

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Shackelford: Golf's desperate bid for attention puts game at risk

Golf is not the problem. Desperation, however, is a recurring theme worth monitoring.

Like other sports, we know the game faces issues related to its pace, scale, cost and the time constraints of modern society. The efforts to “grow,” sustain and jump-start both pro and recreational sectors are worthy given signs of a shifting modern sports landscape. And for every silly element piled onto recent European Tour gimmicks (pyrotechnics, really?), there is nothing desperate about sampling new formats to break up the monotony of 72-hole stroke play.

But there is such a steady air of desperation to the improvement efforts that we may scare off the very people golf hopes to retain or attract. In a recent case, the desperation may have injured a top player.

When Henrik Stenson announced he was sitting out the Race to Dubai’s final two events to nurse sore ribs, it was hardly a late-season shocker. A veteran who has been all over the world and worked countless hours on his game was relenting to his body. No biggie.

But when Stenson hinted that he may have hurt the ribs during a pre-HSBC Champions “photo call” in China when he was delivered to a stage via a rope harness, Stenson’s pain overtook Lexi Thompson’s photo shoot boxing injury for most embarrassing publicity-driven moment.

Stenson felt bad for negative reactions hurled at HSBC and tried to walk back the suggestion of injury via photo call. But the Shanghai stunt was the latest in a long line of traditional pre-tournament launches at HSBC events, most of them harmless yet intentionally absurd to attract attention. Players have been dressed in the “traditional garb” of the host country while twirling swords, swinging golf clubs above their heads, banging drums, milking cows, hanging lanterns, singing, dancing and even working as driving range DJs.

Pre-tournament publicity stunts have long been part of the game. The Los Angeles Open held a long-drive contest in the Coliseum during the 1940s and the Masters used to kick off the week with a downtown parade. In modern times, social-media stunts and other visual presentations are used to get people excited for tournaments and some of them, particularly European Tour videos, have perfectly toed the line between creative and fun. But it’s the nearly relentless volume of efforts meant for attention, with that unmistakable undertone of desperation, that undermines respect for the core merits of golf as a product.

The sport is too sound, too time-tested and way too full of smart people to miss the point so regularly. Sure, appeal to the next generation, but don’t insult an older generation by so regularly suggesting we’ve never seen times like this. Rest on golf’s timeless laurels sometimes and consider pushing at a time when there are openings to grow the sport. Take the opportunity provided by the NFL.

No one will fault PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan for remodeling the Tour schedule to work around the almighty NFL. The PGA Tour is probably right to tighten up its season and avoid the kickoff to NFL games along with a fall sports landscape that includes baseball pennant chases, U.S. Open tennis and the NBA starting two weeks earlier. Yet an amazing transition is taking place: America’s most popular spectator sport is in decline.

Several issues have made the NFL less popular. Ratings are down, in part, because of changing perception about the NFL as a safe, sound product. The long-term prospects for the sport attracting young people look shaky. Golf, perhaps because of its genteel nature, has sat back and avoided wading into the controversy.

Why bring negative attention to our sport – the thinking might go – by pointing out that parents ought to send their kids in golf’s direction instead of football? Yet that is the very thing golf should be doing. The health benefits of the sport are known, and outside of excess exposure to the sun or rib injuries at unnecessary photo calls, it’s a much safer alternative that can be played for a lifetime.

Golf has survived a little of everything over 500 years and will be here for another 500. Yes, we should get the house in order on a few fronts, but the inherent values in this sport are time-tested. Let’s own this game and stop trying to sell something it is not. Let’s stop dressing golfers as Superman and suspending them in mid-air. They’re just golfers, and there is nothing wrong with that.

(Note: The story appears in the Nov. 13, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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