Grant Woodward: Golf is in danger of disappearing into long grass

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THEY have had plenty of time to prepare, so it’s hardly surprising that the Royal and Ancient Golf Club is making a decent fist of defending the indefensible. And financially at least, its decision to call time on six decades of The Open being shown on terrestrial TV is a no-brainer.

There’s no doubt that great things will be done with the extra £25m over five years that the R&A is pocketing by signing with Sky. Peter Dawson, its chief executive, has spoken eloquently and convincingly about how that money will help grassroots golf, allowing more cash to be poured into local clubs who offer a way into the game for youngsters by providing free coaching and kit.

And nor will anyone who has seen its coverage of everything from the European Tour to the Ryder Cup will argue that Sky will breathe fresh life into The Open with its top-notch production values and eye for innovation.

Just look at what it has done for cricket, providing a fully immersive experience for fans of the summer game – a far cry from the lazy, one-dimensional approach taken by the BBC before the England and Wales Cricket Board took the game to Channel 4 and then Sky.

But there’s a bigger picture here. As a sport, golf is dying. Participation is dwindling and the numbers of youngsters coming into the game are bottoming out. Thankfully, there’s a ray of hope in the shape of a young man from Holywood, Northern Ireland. Rory McIlroy has the ability – and desire – to become the greatest golfer of all time. Certainly the best ever from Britain. Already up there with Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus in terms of career achievements relative to his age, McIlroy has the potential to rule the world for years. And he’s exciting and charismatic enough to lure youngsters away from their PlayStations and Xboxes, to make them consider heading down to their local driving range and having a go themselves.

Only now millions of them won’t be able to get inspired by Rory because they won’t get a chance to see him in action, except perhaps for the occasional glimpse on the BBC’s highlights package.

The R&A bangs on about its Get Into Golf website and its offer of free taster sessions at a local club, but youngsters have to want to go looking for it in the first place. The spark for getting into any sport remains the same as it always has been, that buzz of seeing the greats of the game in action.

As a young boy, I would watch The Big Match on ITV on a Sunday afternoon and then afterwards go outside to try to recreate the goals until it got too dark to see. After seeing Seve Ballesteros at his swashbuckling best at The Open, I would pull out the sawn-down two-wood my dad had procured for me and hit air-flow balls for hours in the back garden.

And that’s the point. If a child is inspired enough, they will find a way. Seve himself watched The Open at his parents’ farm in northern Spain and then spent hours trying to recreate the shots on his local beach. All the free taster sessions in the world are no substitute for that inital inspiration. And that’s what the deal with Sky will kill stone dead for countless youngsters who could have embraced the game if they had just been able to see it.

Let’s not kid ourselves that the BBC is blameless in all this. It’s stuck-in-a-rut coverage appeals to traditionalists and leaves newcomers and younger viewers bored rigid. Its frontman, Peter Alliss, is 83. Its producers think innovation means having Ken Brown (who no one under 40 will have ever heard of) stroll across a few greens. Complacent doesn’t begin to cover it.

The Corporation will plead poverty and trot out the familiar line about having to make best use of the licence fee. But that doesn’t excuse the way it has allowed its coverage of the game to stagnate. It was the same with cricket – and look at the way that was transformed when it switched to Channel 4 before, inevitably, the ECB took the money and ran to Sky. Now the R&A are following suit. ‘Guardians of the game’? Don’t make me laugh.

Also culpable are the Government. The failure to include England’s home Test matches and now The Open on its list of protected events that must be shown on free-to-air television has allowed the sports’ administrators to cash in at the expense of plummeting participation levels. For both sports it’s now a case of out of sight, out of mind.

The BBC and the Government also culpable. Lazy coverage aimed at traditionalists, the Government should have put it on protected sports list.

As for Sky’s millions securing the future of the game, the R&A would have been better off pouring its already ample reserves into adapting the game to suit youngsters with bigger holes and shorter rounds, while incentivising clubs to welcome youngsters rather than make them feel they were in the way.

And how about using some of its financial clout to help keep local municipal courses open? After all, this is where most youngsters start playing the game before they can even dream of affording to join a members’ club. Yet they’re closing at a rate of knots – early victims of council budget cuts.

Instead the Sky deal will ensure that the game now follows cricket on that long and inevitable retreat to the margins of British sporting life.

grant.woodward@ypn.co.uk