A Substitute for War

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What golf on TV being entertaining tells us about the sports product

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WP Rory McIlroy

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Most people who like watching golf on TV would tell you the same thing – That it translates so well is certainly a surprise with what would otherwise seem like a slow, tedious sport. Who’d have thought that players hitting a ball once every 10 minutes and spending the rest of the time walking would work? But I love the PGA tour. I’m always happy when the week of one of the four majors comes around. Judging by ratings and interest, I’m not alone.

So why does golf on TV work against all odds? As far as I can tell, here are a number of the reasons:


While I don’t mind watching smaller tournaments, it’s the 4 major championships (the Masters, the US Open, the British Open, the PGA Tour) that work the most. As in tennis, it’s like watching the NBA/NHL/MLB/NFL playoffs 4 times a year. It’s where the players prove their rank for their generation.


I always find it interesting how much more “powerful” a player feels once they’ve won a major tournament. It’s like they become a much larger threat and force than before. In tennis the difference isn’t as large after a major victory because the seeding system already gives the players gravitas. In golf a major victory can turn a player from a relative unknown to being one of “the names.” The difference in legacy for golfers between 0 majors and 1 is huge. Going from 1 to 2 or 2 to 3 puts the player in an even more select group. The value and prestige that winning these titles gives a player makes the beforementioned stakes feel even greater.


You cannot win a golf major without absolutely deserving it. As a pure skill sport and once with very little luck, these guys deserve every victory they get.

World Rankings

In both tennis and golf, I much enjoy following the world rankings. Admittedly, the PGA Tour’s rankings are a bit of a mess at the moment with the vacuum Tiger’s fall has left and without a dominant force sitting at #1. But once upon a time, I much enjoyed seeing Tiger, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, and Ernie Els sit at the top of the rankings for what seemed like forever.

The Mental Aspect

I consider most sports diehards to be miniature wannabe psychologists. When we see Lebron shrink in the Finals, we eat up the mental aspect of his failure. Whereas a player like Dirk Nowitzki erasing all mental sports demons is equally rewarding. There is no sport that tests a player’s mental fortitude like golf. When you have the lead, the pressure is absolutely on with every swing and putt – and many have cracked on the final Sunday. Seeing these players under the microscope down the stretch is always entertaining.


All of this ties into enhancing drama, which is what quality sports product comes down to. It’s dramatic seeing players rise and fall in the last two days and last few holes – to see a come from behind victory or a player holding on. A head to head race down the stretch becomes a true battle. The dramatic aspect is reflected both in the tournament themselves and the big picture/

Fixing bad shots

As far as I can tell, the 2nd most entertaining part of golf is when a player in a good position gets himself into trouble – like hitting it into the woods or water or screwing up a bunker shot, at which point the game becomes “Uh oh, how bad could this end up for him?” Truthfully I think most golf fans are sadists. We want the massive failures as much as the victories. And naturally when a player is leading by a lot, everyone wants him to come back to the pack to set up a more exciting finale.


The most entertaining part of golf on TV however is putting. It’s just awesome. Especially on game changing holes. This is where the pressure, stakes, mental aspect, head to head battle value, etc. just get magnified into one moment. Putting being so awesome is what made Tiger Woods the biggest sports star in America.

A slow sport does not make slow or empty TV

Despite players only hitting a shot every 5 or 15 minutes, there’s plenty to fill the TV. First, they can switch cameras to whoever’s hitting a shot, allowing a swing or putt every minute or two minutes. I believe this is the single biggest reason golf beat the odds to become a spectator sport. If you actually had to wait 5 or 10 minutes to see a shot, it’d have no chance. Secondly, one benefit is allowing lots of face-time for the players. By seeing the players more close-up, it further enhances their status as characters in a drama.

Great announcers

This is probably a smaller factor, but in a sport with comparatively more deadtime, the announcing and studio booth crews become more important. I’ve always been impressed by the talking heads and voices in golf. They nicely pace the product, giving the right gravitas to the players shots and putts, previewing courses during overhead shots, setting up the drama of the leaderboard orally.

What does it all mean?

What I’d guess it means that what makes sports entertaining, is not about the pace of the sport. Stakes, legacy, meritocracy, mental implications, and overall drama – as well as the ability for television to put together a product nicely – all matters. For this reason, when looking closely I believe it’s perfectly logical that golf would end up one of the premiere television products.

Written by jr.

July 14, 2011 at 7:32 pm

One Response

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  1. You are wrong about the meritocracy imo, golf is one of the sports where luck has the biggest influence. The marginals is so small so a lucky stroke from the bunker, a putt rolling around in the whole and out or the ball landing behind a stone/tree can decide a whole tournament and usually does. Check out how often Tiger won when he was the most dominant player on the tour, he didn’t win that large percentage of the tournaments he participated in. Compare this to something like Federer in tennis who won just about every tournament. The competition or the size of the fields might not be identical but i doubt the difference is that big. I can’t come up with a sport where the guy with the highest expected value wins more seldom.

    I agree about all the other stuff, majors in golf is really entertaining.


    July 15, 2011 at 5:14 am

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