Golf is in crisis. The number of US golfers fell by almost a quarter to about 23 million players last year, from its peak in 2002—in 2013 alone, the game lost 1.1 million players. In England, the number of young people regularly playing the game almost halved between 2010 and 2013.
Rory McIlroy is the most successful golfer in the world at the moment, and even he thinks the game takes too long. “Gone are the days that you could spend five or six hours on a golf course,” the world number one told the BBC. “Everything’s so instant now, and everyone doesn’t have as much time as they used to.”
McIlroy notes that that, while participation is down, TV viewership is up. “So you maybe try some way of speeding the game up,” he said. He thinks the world’s governing body won’t mind a few modifications to the rules of golf if it gets young people playing. ”I don’t think they need to alter tournament-play formats,” he said. “It’s the grassroots—definitely not at our level.”
This is a slippery slope—but one that a lot of other, more traditional sports have gone down. Cricket has been by far the most successful, with the much-faster 20/20 format capturing the imagination of younger fans—mainly those in India—who don’t want to wait five days (or even one) for a draw.
Quartz recently wrote about snooker’s struggles to conquer America—and one of the solutions being proposed is playing snooker on a pool table. There’s also a quickfire version called Shootout that has been going since 1990.
Tennis added time outs, challenges, and a five-minute timed face-off to the rules of the game in a recent Asian league as it tries to attract new fans as well. Even Roger Federer couldn’t keep track of all the new rules but he sees why it might work. “It’s not going to replace how we play the tour but it definitely has a place in our sport,” he said. “You bend it, you customize it, and it works for everyone involved.”
As some of these sports have shown, it is hard to change the rules at grassroots level without profound changes across the sport. But then, when it comes to showmanship, perhaps they should listen to McIlroy. At age nine, he was putting golf balls into washing machines on TV in Northern Ireland:
Which he recreated as an adult against Jeff the robot: