Watching that beautifully grainy footage from the 1960’s of some of the game’s legends was a fantastic nightcap for the holiday and reminded me of how much I enjoyed those made for TV exhibition matches of yesteryear. I sat and watched in awe as Arnold Palmer, Gay Brewer, and an insanely skinny, young Chi Chi Rodriguez in Puerto Rico…45 years ago.
It was a familiar feeling, the same as I used to get watching the old the 1960 Home Run Derby television series, which featured 19 future Baseball Hall of Fame members
Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf originally aired from 1961 until 1970, featuring golf’s greatest stars. The list of players that participated in these 18-hole stroke play exhibitions is literally a roll call of the legends of the game.
Filmed during the former “Silly Season” of the winters before the PGA Tour reconvened, the Wonderful World of Golf was appointment television for golf aficionados on selected Sunday afternoons. The matches were majestic monuments to a bygone era, with the spectator galleries dressed to the nines, the ladies in dresses and the men in coats and ties.
One especially fun aspect of these made-for-television matches was that when he wasn’t playing, the matches were narrated by none other than Gene Sarazen.
Another was that the golfers would interact with the on-course reporters, displaying varying degrees of wit, humor, and admiration for their competitors and the host course and city.
The matches would be played at some of the greatest, most renowned golf courses in the world; places like the Old Course, Pebble Beach, Gleneagles, and Pine Valley.
Other episodes were played on destination in exotic locales which were as much a part of the entertainment as the golf that was played. It was marvelous.
This original run inexplicably stopped after the 1970 season. Maybe the NFL began its dominance of Sunday afternoons. Perhaps the top-tier golfers were making enough money by then that the didn’t need the hassle. Could be that Shell Oil found better avenues for the sponsorship dollars.
Whatever the reason, the show took hiatus, despite the seeds being planted for the Senior Tour that would arrive on the scene a decade later in 1980.
Fortunately, the Golf Channel arrived on the scene by the mid-1990’s in desperate need of programming. So Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf was revived.
The second go-around featured just as high quality golf match-ups as the original, with a mix of legends of the game from the Senior Tour and the top PGA Tour pros of the day. The first two matches of the series’ 1994 revival were true marquee matches. Greg Norman vs. Nick Faldo at Sunningdale, followed by Arnie vs. Jack at Pinehurst No. 2.
Even as a kid who’d never picked up a golf club (due to a childhood misspent on baseball), the show was intensely entertaining.
Then, after about a decade, the series went away again after its 2003 finale between Fred Couples and Michael Campbell. While some big stars like Couples and Phil Mickelson were regulars on the series, the absence of Tiger Woods during the most dominating stretch of his career probably contributed to the end of the show.
I’ve literally wished for a couple of years now that someone would find a way to revive the series once again. While the heart wants what it wants, my head knows a third run for the series is unlikely for a host of reasons.
The PGA Tour’s wrap-around schedule has all but eliminated the former Golf Silly Season between the Tour Championship and the West Coast Swing.
These events rarely draw the top-name stars because they don’t need the money or the handful of FedEx Cup or Ryder Cup points that these events might provide.
Additionally, long gone are the days of top professionals needing additional income sources aside from their earnings from the Tour. The top 104 finishers on the PGA Tour for the 2014 season all made in excess of $1,000,000.00 from playing golf. That excludes any money made from sponsorships, endorsement deals, appearance fees, or corporate outings.
With those sort of on-course earnings, it’s easy to imagine that the top tour pros would rather spend time away from golf with their families and friends. The law of diminishing marginal utility is very real and very powerful.
Plus, professional golf has begun bordering on television saturation. Between the PGA, European, Asian, Nationwide, LPGA, Champions, and Symetra tours, it’s the rare Saturday or Sunday that live golf isn’t on the Golf Channel, NBC, CBS, or FOX.
Never mind that the golf exhibition has all but succumb to the feats-of-strength competitions that are Long Drive Championships (exactly as Harvey Penick described decades ago).
Unfortunately, I would argue that golf needs a low-stress, highly entertaining exhibitions now more than ever. Part of the mystique of Tiger Woods was that he was so closed off to the outside world.
While that mysterious aura served him well in dominating his competition, it deprived a generation of golf fans from engaging with their hero the way a prior generation fell in love with Arnie.
It also inspired an entire generation of golfers to be cold, bland, and, outside of a few out-sized personalities, boring. “Don’t say anything, don’t do anything, don’t think anything that could cost you sponsors” seems to be norm of today’s professional golfers.
While it’s perhaps an effective brand-management philosophy, it does very little to engender affection or admiration from the average golf fan who never gets to experience their favorite players’ personalities.
As golf moves into the post-Tiger Woods era, now is exactly the time that golf could benefit most from getting to know its stars and up-and-comers outside of the weekly grind of tournament golf.
Imagine Jason Day and Jordan Spieth reliving their love-fest from the final day at Whistling Straits for 18 televised holes at Royal Melbourne. Or, what an opportunity to get know a little more about some great young talents like Billy Horschel, Brooks Kopeka, or Justin Thomas.
A simple format derivation from the original series could also give the professionals the opportunity to brush-up on their match-play skills that come under such scrutiny each fall in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup competitions.
Sure, the WGC match play events already provide such an opportunity, but other than the handful of semifinals and finals matches, how much of an individual golfer’s round actually gets airtime at these events outside of the usual suspects?
Finally, a new Wonderful World of Golf would give entrepreneurial and ambitious course operators the opportunity to showcase their destinations that aren’t among the handful of courses that host regular tour events.
There are so many great golf courses all over the world that I know nothing about other than the 250 words devoted to them in a blurb on some magazine’s “Best Of” list that could be perfect settings for these matches.
I don’t believe a revival of the Wonderful World of Golf is eminent or even likely. But I will continue to enjoy the annual Christmas present that is a throwback to the fun side of professional golf. And I’ll hope…’tis the season of miracles, isn’t it?