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Golf is now redrawing the world map ...to suit itself

Bloated game relishes riding gravy train

By Kevin Garside

As the European Tour contemplates the appointment of a new chief executive to shape the future of golf, it might consider inviting Sir Dave Brailsford on to its selection panel, assuming he is too busy to take the post himself, of course.

Having transformed the fortunes of British cycling, the head of Team Sky has turned his attention to a wider brief, unveiling a global vision for the sport's development and growth.

Brailsford wants the sport to reach a wider audience. He wants a season with a start, middle and end, one that delivers a story that engages and is easy to follow.

To achieve this he has brought together cycling's major teams under an umbrella organisation called Velon, which is essentially a joint venture involving the sport's principal stakeholders.

"If the teams unite and work collectively to make cycling better to watch and easier to understand, it's to everyone's benefit. It will encourage more fans to follow the sport," Brailsford said, in what ought to be a mission statement for golf.

For teams read tours, or more accurately the European and PGA Tours, golf's big commercial drivers.

This week in Johannesburg, Ernie Els teed off at the South African Open as the tournament "host".

Over in Hawaii, the PGA Tour emerges from its winter slumber at an event grandly labelled the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Neither field features players packing the top of the rankings.

Ulster's Rory McIlroy joined Adam Scott, Martin Kaymer and Justin Rose in a list of 2014 winners electing not to crash through Pacific time zones.

Masters champion Bubba Watson, at No 4 in the world, is the highest-ranked player riding the surf.

Perhaps the players who sell the game are telling the authorities something.

This week's events are separated by more than 11,000 miles and take their place as schedule fillers with little traction beyond their locale. In years gone by that was all that mattered, of course, events developing organically to satisfy indigenous interest and need.

And then along came television to convert sporting values into commercial property.

While this has enriched the golfer beyond comprehension a generation ago, and administrators too, it has also changed the landscape to such a degree that it threatens not only the sustainability of the sport but its integrity too.

Both the major tours in Europe and the US have become bloated. Europe has redrawn the map of the world in the mad race to keep pace with the commercial power of the US and survives courtesy of events in the Middle and Far East.

Golf is not alone in riding this geopolitical gravy train. Formula One is predicated on it, pricing out of the market its traditional hosts, who have no chance of competing with ambitious state purses willing to shell out $30m (£20m) a pop for a weekend of global visibility.

The post-war advent of televised sport gave birth to the notion of sports rights and changed the sporting world for ever.

Football was, and remains, the driver of this phenomenon, having transformed the way it and all sports are organised, played and watched.

Lesser beasts have had to adjust to survive - witness the move of rugby league from a winter to a summer pastime 19 years ago to gain a commercial foothold.

Cricket is shifting towards a one-day, made-for-TV gig, with Test matches outside England and Australia losing significance by the year.

Golf sees its future and salvation in uncharted territories.

Like the scramble for Africa among the European powers in the mid-19th century, the PGA and European tours are joined in the fight for territory beyond their borders.

The return to Olympic participation in Brazil next year is seen as the key to sustained global expansion, with South America the next in line for colonisation.

The commercial case is unarguable, but the endless pursuit of new dollars comes at a cost.

While the exporters are selling the idea of what golf is, and means, to a new audience, the old audience is struggling to keep pace.

Participation figures are falling, with club memberships in England down more than 25 per cent over the past decade from 882,184 in 2004 to 675,000 in 2014.

McIlroy, Scott, Tiger Woods and the rest of the elite are increasingly shaping seasons around reduced activity. Their absence creates a two-tier experience, with the lesser events unfolding in relative anonymity.

For golf's big beasts, and the audience, the only tournaments that matter are the four majors.

The answer is greater collaboration between the two big tours, an understanding that the world is shrinking and that mutuality rather than independence is the way forward.

It would not take much to formalise an elite schedule to include golf's blue-riband events, perhaps 15 to 20 embracing China, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East, that commits the top players in the world.

There will still be a place for other events on tours serving regional interest, but in a way that supports the grand plan.

Our American brothers would have to leap on planes more often but the rewards would ease their pain and might even guarantee the future of the game.

"Collaboration is the cornerstone to positive change," Brailsford said of his Velon initiative.

"It's a big step towards the sport reaching its full potential. The teams have come together with a powerful shared vision to optimise the sport and develop new ways for it to grow."

Sounds like a plan to me.

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