The entertainment provided by this years Open at St Andrews serves as a reminder that major sporting events should be free for all writes Jonny Hall
After the tedium of the Masters, golf fans have been well and truly treated to some top class entertainment. First with the US Open at Chambers Bay, and now The Open at St. Andrews. The former, shown exclusively on Sky Sports, was surrounded by a storm of controversy, the greens being described by Henrik Stenson as “like putting on broccoli”. The course, for all the angst it caused amongst the players, created some great entertainment for viewers at home. Certainly, there was something refreshing about watching only 8 of the 156 entrants shoot under par.
In complete contrast, the Open was as low-scoring as it gets. On the final day, there were 24 players within four shots of the lead at -13 and ultimately the three leaders were tied at -15. As much as there was something to be said for watching professionals toil round the undulating Chambers Bay course, there is nothing quite as exciting for a potential golf fan as watching the birdies flying in left, right and centre. What’s more, this spectacle was for all to enjoy on the BBC. The level of entertainment makes it all the more disappointing that the BBC has lost their rights to show live coverage of the Open after 2016. Yes, the BBC will be showing highlights of the major, but given the current trend which has seen public service broadcasters losing out on high-profile sporting events to their commercial counterparts, it is not unrealistic to assume there may be no golf on the BBC in the not so distant future. A decade ago, the BBC used to air 24 days of live golf a year – that figure is now down to 10, shortly it will be as low as 2. Furthermore, given that Sky refused to share live coverage of the Open as they currently do for the Masters, I would consider it likely that the days of live golf on the BBC are soon to be a thing of the past.
There is nothing quite as exciting for a potential golf fan as watching the birdies flying in left, right and centre. What’s more, this spectacle was for all to enjoy on the BBC
The argument has been made that with extra television revenue from the Open, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club can reinvest to increase grass-roots golf participation. My challenge to this would be that there is nothing quite as inspiring when taking up a sport than watching your idol. Someone you admire, revere and desire to emulate – especially in golf, a game not normally prevalent in the school sports curriculum. As Cricinfo’s George Dobell put it with regards to cricket’s move to Sky, there is no way that the many thousands of hours of ECB funded coaching “will ever replace one hour of inspiration watching the likes of Andrew Flintoff lead England to the Ashes.” Much like cricket, Sky’s golf coverage is truly excellent. I, as much as the next person, love to hear the engrossing Butch Harmon cheering “Atta boy [insert golfer’s name]!’ every time they sink a putt. In addition, the camerawork on Sky is clearly superior to their BBC counterparts. When matching BBC up against Sky however, there is simply no comparison with regards audience outreach. Nearly 6 million watched Rory McIlroy win the Claret Jug on the BBC last year, whilst the Sky exclusive 2014 Ryder Cup peaked at less than 2 million viewers. Echoing Dobell’s sentiments, if the Flintoffs and McIlroys of the world are to be inspirational figures, they must be seen by the masses, not just a privileged few.
There is nothing quite as inspiring when taking up a sport than watching your idol. Someone you admire, revere and desire to emulate – especially in golf
Based on this, I am a firm believer that out of the four majors, at least the Open should be available on free-to-air television. The ‘crown jewels’ of sporting events (those where by statute, live coverage must be offered to the main free-to-air television on “fair and reasonable terms”) include the Grand National, the Derby and Rugby League’s Challenge Cup final, but none of the golfing majors. How can we expect the declining participation in golf to be changed when the Open is merely on the B-list of sporting events, of which only highlights must be offered? Indeed, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell have both spoken about how live BBC coverage acted as an inspiration helping kick start their golfing careers when they were growing up. We desperately need a governmental impetus to reassess the current classifications, which have been unchanged since the damaging departure of Test cricket to the B-list in 2006. Looking back on the Open at St. Andrews, we should remember the five days of fabulous golf, but also treat them as a rallying cry, the tournament that made it clear why major sporting events to be made available to all.