WHERE WAS THE BUZZ AT THE WGC-CADILLAC CHAMPIONSHIP?
The WGC-Cadillac Championship at the Doral Blue Monster course seemed to have it all: a stellar field, big purse, great course, high drama with top players hovering on the leaderboard, holes-in-one, numerous hole-outs from seemingly everywhere, and the world’s top player tossing a 3-iron into a lake. What more would you want in an important professional golf tournament? Well, apparently something. Notably missing was fan excitement. Even PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem acknowledged he heard from people that there was “no buzz.” For a near major tournament with all it offered, why did it seem to fall so flat?
Watching the tournament on TV, I was struck by how passive and, it appeared to me, relatively sparse the galleries seemed to be. Missing were the rip-roaring cheers one expects to erupt at prestigious golf events. Even the crowd response to holes-in-one made by J.B. Holmes and Dustin Johnson on Friday was notably subdued. Imagine what the reaction would have been had they been made on the 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
VIDEO: Lackluster roar from the stands as Johnson wins the WGC.
Admittedly one can’t always draw accurate conclusions about crowds from TV coverage, but still you can get a fairly good picture by observing the size of galleries in proximity to players and noting the decibel level of crowd cheering. I noticed how few fans were in the camera shots around greens and when leading players were hitting shots when balls strayed off fairways. I recall attending tournaments when crowds were rows deep along the fairways and around the greens. Galleries would swarm around a player hitting a shot from beyond the ropes. You had to be either very tall, stand on a stool, or have one of those mirrored box gadgets that enables you to see over heads in order to see the action. I expected no less from a tournament designated as a world golf championship. Why weren’t spectators more visible and expressive? Where was the “buzz”?
A number of golf pundits have called attention to generally diminished fan excitement at PGA Tour events (the WM Phoenix Open being the notable exception). Most point to the Tour’s lack of any spirited rivalries, Tiger Woods’ decline, slow play, and the general absence of player charisma as causes.
Regarding the WGC-Cadillac at Doral, Jaime Diaz Golf World magazine believes the lack of buzz at the Blue Monster reflects steadily declining interest in world golf events, in part because the format of limiting the field to only the top internationally ranked players, which was intended to spark global interest in the game, is no longer salient. International fields are far more common nowadays at regular tour stops than they were in 1999 when the five-member International Federation of PGA Tours began its series of WGC events. Several European Tour regulars have relocated to the U.S. and now play primarily on the American tour. Seeing European, Asian and African tour stars no longer kindles fan interest and curiosity as used to be the case.
According to Diaz, interest has also declined because the reduced WGC fields make winning more predictable. He thinks it’s easier to beat a field of 70 players that includes the world’s top 50 players than beating a regular field of 140+ players when, say, only 25 of the top 50 players are participating. In restricted field formats, favorites usually prevail. With the larger fields in regular tour stops and only a scattering of the world’s best, anyone can win. This brings in an element of unpredictability which appeals to golf fans. Americans seem to love Cinderella stories.
I suppose the Diaz arguments have merit, but I think there’s a larger factor at work. WGC events have set ticket prices so high that they’ve screened out grassroots sports fans. Ticket prices for the WGC-Cadillac were $175.35 for an all-week ground ticket, $304.95 for Club House access, and $390.55 for the deep-pocket Escalade Lounge pass. Individual round tickets were not available for purchase online or at the course (at most regular Tour events day tickets could be purchased at the gate for around $30.) Fancy tents, glass-enclosed viewing booths, upgraded food service, and access to the Trump National Doral Resort provided big spenders what tournament officials billed as a “South Beach atmosphere.” The only thing missing was lunch with “The Donald,” though that could probably have been arranged. All this strikes me as exciting as watching paint dry.
Less well-healed folk were left to stand in line at concession stands. Nowhere on the grounds was there anything like the Coors Light Birds Nest at the TPC Scottsdale. Herein lays the missing piece. It is grassroots fans that bring emotion and enthusiasm to the course. They are the spectators who energize the Phoenix Open. They are also the ones who made the old Doral Open, held at the Blue Monster from 1962 to 2006, the raucous event it used to be. Rich folk and VIP’s generally hang out in the exclusive tents, corporate booths, and special event areas; most rarely venture out on the course. Common sports fans are the buzz producers; price them out of the market and you muzzle the buzz.
As I argued in a previous post (Silence Is Not Golden at the Waste Management Phoenix Open), I also think the PGA Tour’s determination to maintain what it believes is proper fan conduct has had a chilling effect on gallery exuberance. Spectators who play and follow golf have become accustomed to stifling urges to openly express excitement, a self-policing reinforced by ever-present QUIET! signs and dirty looks from course marshals. This reticence is even stronger at big purse majors and semi-majors. Non- or occasional-golfers are less inhibited from open displays of excitement. Aren’t these the kind of sports fans the WGC concept is trying to reach in its quest to expand interest in the game?
Let’s face it; the PGA Tour is attentive to corporate sponsors, TV networks, equipment manufacturers, and big-spending golfers, not the average golfer or someone yet to take up the game. It claims to be dedicated to broadening interest in golf, but such a claim rings hollow in light of how it sells its product. The Tour features fancy, prohibitively expensive courses, most of them private, exorbitantly priced golf equipment, and budding young stars that learned the game in exclusive country clubs and Power-Five college programs. Such elitist messages have little resonance with average Americans, especially the young, who have been losing interest in golf. Things might be different if the game was presented as something more generally approachable.
Bringing back the buzz to Doral? I agree with Jaime Diaz’s prescription. The Doral Open should return to its roots as a regular tour stop, expand its field, re-install a cut, and, most importantly, resurrect affordable tickets so average fans can attend. It should keep its current dates, which are attractive to many of the world’s top players wanting a tough challenge before the Masters, not to mention the big purse.
These changes would require disconnecting from Doral’s current WGC affiliation– no big loss for either the WGC or the Blue Monster. The Doral Open will still draw a top field and the WGC will still have its WGC-Cadillac Match Play, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, and the WBC-HSBC in China, which in tapping into a new emerging market more closely follows the original spirit of the world championship idea.
As a regular tour stop with grassroots folks in attendance, the raucous atmosphere will return to the Blue Monster, delighting golf fans and viewers alike. If only the Donald would agree.
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