BBC’s Open sacrifice is a danger to growth of golf

The commentary of the BBCs voice of golf, Peter Alliss, with presenter Hazel Irvine. Picture: GettyThe commentary of the BBCs voice of golf, Peter Alliss, with presenter Hazel Irvine. Picture: Getty
The commentary of the BBCs voice of golf, Peter Alliss, with presenter Hazel Irvine. Picture: Getty
WHILE it will boost the R&A’s coffers if, as predicted, it is worth £3 million more per year than the current package, a new television deal for the Open Championship taking it away from the BBC to Sky surely can’t be welcomed as being good for golf in its overall landscape.

Admittedly, at a time when the BBC, which has held the live rights for the event for the past 59 years, appears to have lost all interest in the Royal & Ancient game, the sport is now being covered better than ever before.

Hours and hours of events like the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, won by world No 1 Rory McIlroy yesterday, are broadcast almost on a 12-month basis these days, showcasing the game like never before, and Sky certainly deserve credit for the resources it puts into that coverage.

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It is because of that and how much money it actually pumps into the European Tour that the likes of Paul Lawrie, a former Open champion, believes players would be hypocritical to believe an injustice is about to take place as far as television coverage of the world’s oldest major is concerned.

It is little wonder, however, that others, such as former world No 1 Lee Westwood, feel that The Open being lost from terrestrial television is wrong and that action should have been taken long ago to avoid an announcement that is expected in the next day or two. “I cannot believe The Open isn’t protected as one of the crown jewels – that is an absolute disgrace,” declared the Englishman.

In truth, this has probably been coming for some time. Money talks, after all, in modern-day sport and, in golf alone, we have already seen the United States Golf Association sign a mega-bucks 12-year deal with Fox Sports for the US Open starting this season.

It doesn’t mean to say, though, that selling out to the highest bidder – Sky are believed to be offering £10m per year for the Claret Jug joust – is best for the sport, and that is what has been gnawing away with many people as far as The Open is concerned.

More than anywhere in the world, it is in Scotland where the event has inspired thousands upon thousands of youngsters to take up the game.

They’ve either been taken to it by their parents – I can still vividly recall my first trip to Turnberry in 1977, and not only because that happened to be the infamous “Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, or been glued to it on the BBC.

In my time, we’ve listened to, among others, the great Henry Longhurst, Mark McCormack, Dave Marr, Alex Hay, Ken Brown and, of course, the BBC’s voice of golf, Peter Alliss, describe the action during Open week and become used to them being part of sport’s fabric before it seemed to become unfashionable with the corporation’s powers-that-be.

As a result, we’ve been left with just The Open, the Women’s British Open and the last two days of The Masters as the only live golf shown on the BBC – and now the jewel in that shrinking crown is about to be lost.

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From 2017 onwards – the current deal runs out after next year’s event at Royal Troon – it will instantly reach a reduced number of youngsters and that, quite bluntly, is the last thing the game needs right now.

Golf club memberships are still dropping at an alarming rate. Inside the past 18 months alone, the Lothians has seen three clubs shut their doors – Lothianburn, Torphin Hill and, just on Saturday, Castle Park near Gifford.

Through Clubgolf, the national junior initiative that is part of the 2014 Ryder Cup legacy, a lot of time and effort has been put into trying to give every youngster in Scotland the opportunity to get a taste of golf, and now a new Government-backed scheme, “Get Into Golf”, is aiming to build on that by getting more families out on to courses.

Yet such initiatives are surely about to be undermined by the one event those kids will probably stand on putting greens and say to themselves, ‘this one to become Open champion’, being taken off terrestrial television.

There are many golf lovers who believe the BBC only have themselves to blame for what is about to happen due to the fact golf has plummeted so dramatically down its list of priorities.

Football, of course, remains king with it and every other sports channel and always will.

What sticks more in throats than that, though, in terms of the licence fee, is that Formula 1 and, to a lesser (far cheaper, too, of course) extent, snooker are looked upon through the eyes of BBC bosses more favourably than either golf or horse-racing.

At least the latter – thanks to Channel 4’s enthusiasm for it – is still shown on terrestrial television but, the way things are going, that won’t be the case for golf, which will be absolutely scandalous in the game’s cradle.

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We’ve already seen lots of youngsters lose interest in the nation’s football team due to almost every Scotland game these days being screened on satellite television.

Though different in that it is predominantly an individual sport, we can expect the same thing in golf in years to come when only those kids with parents able or willing to cough up the subscription will either know or show any interest in the next Rory McIlroy or Lydia Ko, who, at 17, has just become golf’s youngest No 1.