If there is anything as common to golf as three-putts and sliced tee shots, it has been the prevailing perception that the game is too old, too stuck in its ways, too out of touch with a perpetually changing world.
Now, it seems, the game has landed in what the early days in Silicon Valley must have been like: everyone embracing golf’s new frontiers.
Not edgy but at least closer to the cutting edge. Like trading in a pair of khakis for some joggers, or at least thinking about it.
Innovation, for better or worse, has infiltrated golf. For a game that believes more than any other that rules matter, it seems as if there are no rules for what’s new here and what’s coming.
That’s not a criticism but a nod to the believers that there are other ways for golf to be embraced beyond 72-hole stroke-play tournaments and weekend foursomes. Like most of the rest of us (there are a few grudging holdouts), golf has found itself in the iPhone age, the streaming age and the show-me-something-different age.
Instead of pushing back, the game is leaning in.
TGL isn’t so much stepping outside the box as it is building its own box.
Golf innovation used to be limited to advances in ball technology (you may have heard how the ProV1 changed the game), driver technology (can anyone forget their first swing with a Big Bertha driver?) and the evolution from Sansabelt slacks to Dockers, but now it’s as if the game has hit a gusher in an Oklahoma oil field.
It’s as simple as adjustable clubheads and as complicated as those Star Wars-like 3D swing monitors. Professional golf has new formats ranging from LIV Golf’s reimagining of the competitive model to the TGL concept which will bring many of the game’s biggest stars together to play golf on a pimped-out sound stage with a simulator screen the size of South Carolina while onsite fans watch like they do at “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
There was a time when the Skins Game on Thanksgiving weekend felt like the most provocative thing imaginable. Four superstars playing skins for gobs of money (Gary Player took home $170,000 for winning the original Skins Game in 1983), and now we have four PGA Tour players in a nine-hole match with Formula One drivers in Las Vegas streaming live on Netflix on Tuesday evening.
The juxtaposition of Formula One and golf: Just think about it for a moment.
Is it a stretch? Maybe, but what’s the harm?
Need I mention that you can place live shot-by-shot bets on PGA Tour events on your phone? Or, if you have tickets to the WM Phoenix Open next year, you can settle into the on-course betting establishment to enjoy some beer and wings while you watch what’s happening outside on big screens inside.
While it’s far from perfect, LIV Golf deserves credit for believing in the game’s elasticity, reconfiguring an old model into something, well, very different. It’s not, however, a particularly popular model no matter how much LIV tries to convince everyone it’s a better way, even adding a play-in event and free agency to its format.
It’s kind of like Dippin’ Dots, which forever marketed itself as the ice cream of the future. The future has arrived, and Dippin’ Dots is still around, but so are Ben and Jerry’s, Breyers, Häagen-Dazs and dozens of others offering what people want more than Dippin’ Dots. Maybe LIV is golf’s version of Dippin’ Dots.
Which brings us to TGL, the soon-to-debut, made-for-TV, in-studio golf competition that may be a brilliant concept or not. It has plenty of star power with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and others, and it has deep-pocketed owners who didn’t get rich by making bad decisions.
TGL has booked Monday nights in the winter to draw viewers, and it has a format embracing the idea that the league will be more about entertainment than it is pure golf, though the shots will still matter to a degree.
TGL isn’t so much stepping outside the box as it is building its own box. It’s different from what LIV has done because LIV has sold itself as a competitive entity first, but it has been unable to shake the sense that it’s more like exhibition golf. TGL is like an intentional mini-series.
The question is, how much more successful in terms of interest and watchability will TGL be than LIV? It helps that TGL is tied directly to the PGA Tour, which rarely fails (aside from the justifiably short-lived “Live Under Par” slogan) and will tush-push this to succeed.
Here’s how McIlroy, a loud and consistent critic of LIV’s approach, explains what’s coming.
“We’re pretending to be competitive, and it’s a different type of golf, but it’s not the traditional golf you see week in and week out,” he said at a press conference last week announcing his Boston Common Golf TGL team.
“I don’t want to sit here and talk about LIV, but I think you can make an argument that they haven’t innovated enough away from what traditional golf is. Or they’ve innovated too much that they’re not traditional golf. They’re sort of caught in no-man’s land. Where [TGL] is so far removed from what we know golf to be.”
That’s where the game is going at the moment: to totally different places.
Protein bars are the new hot dogs at the turn. Spiked seltzers are the new light beers. Topgolf is a good place to go on a first date while sneaking in some work on your iron game, too.
This is a game in which visionaries figured out that the more remote and difficult to get to a destination might be, the more likely serious golfers are to go.
Innovation isn’t a scary word in golf anymore.
It has become the game’s buzzword.
Top: The PGA Tour, deep-pocketed owners and Tiger Woods have embraced TGL.