There’s no doubt that 2014 was a special period in Rory McIlroy’s stellar career. He is still just 25 years old and likely has his best years ahead of him.
The Northern Irishman won two of golf’s big honors, the British Open and PGA Championship, and played a significant role as the European team defeated the USA to retain the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in September. McIlroy claimed three points out of a possible five, including a singles victory over Rickie Fowler.
He concluded the year by finishing second in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award, runner-up to F1 champion Lewis Hamilton and with a healthy slice of the voting, taking 123,745 of the 620,932 total cast; a 20 percent share.
With such a popular figure at the very top of the sport, McIlroy’s profile can only help golf in the same way that the triumphs of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton, Mark Cavendish and others elevated cycling into the mainstream.
True enough, last December it was McIlroy who addressed the subject of how golf might attract a new generation of players. In this article he suggested speeding up the game. “The viewership in golf is up but the participation is down,” he said. “People enjoy watching the game but gone are the days that you could spend five or six hours on a golf course. I don’t think they (the rulemakers) need to alter tournament-play formats, I think that works very well. It’s the grassroots.”
He added: “I feel as though I’ve inspired a lot of kids back home in Northern Ireland to pick up the game and play.”
Tweaking formats at amateur level isn’t completely beyond the realm of possibility. After all, cricket has benefited from quicker and more exciting versions of the game; firstly from one day internationals to the frenetic pace and energy of T20, which has become established in its own right around the world.
Introducing shorter courses and nine-hole tournaments for under-18s might be a way to go – or even six-hole matchplay shootouts.
The England Golf Partnership is committed to initiatives called Growing the Game, which include Tri-Golf, a mini version for children of primary school age, and Golf Xtreme, for teenagers.
If time constraints are one of the pressures potential young golfers face, another is expense – of club membership, paying to play, and equipment. But the cost of being kitted out is not as high as many might think: there are plenty of online golf stores offering discounted clubs, bags, shoes and clothing – Snainton Golf, for example, has a designated junior section. Meanwhile, Today’s Golfer magazine provides a 2-FORE-1 scheme; the UK’s largest discounted golf offering across more than 1,000 courses in the country.
The struggle to inspire younger golfers is not exclusive to the UK. The grassroots game in the USA is also facing challenges. On the positive side, the issue has been raised and highlighted, and with genuine global sporting stars such as McIlroy encouraging participation there is cause of optimism.