The digital drive up Magnolia Lane
Back in 2009 I attended the European Tour’s Wales Open and had the idea of tweeting from around the course. It was not only an introduction to the untapped potential of a then-new tool, but it is also a vivid reminder of the extent to which the golf fan experience has been transformed over the last decade.
It was not so much that I could tweet photos, updates and anecdotes in real-time. It was the truth that this placed my information as much as an hour ahead of the leaderboard and half a day (minimum) in front of the infrequently-updated website. In fact, well into 2011 myself and a colleague remained rarities, some argued oddities, posting images and stories from beyond the narrow focus of the TV camera’s lens.
If it took the European Tour some time to be alerted to the creative possibilities of digital, when it did catch on, however, it did so in style, establishing a prize-winning digital platform the envy of other sporting organisations, not least the PGA Tour which continues its attempts to emulate its rival’s light-hearted yet insightful content (learning, instead, that there’s a fine line between engaging content and awkward PR stunts).
The manifest curiosity of golf is that a huge chasm has always existed between the experience of the fan on the course and the viewer at home.
The former gets to appreciate the conditions and stand in close proximity to their heroes, but has very limited scope – they must choose between walking the course or sitting in one spot. Either option compromises the chance of seeing much in the way of actual action.
The TV viewer will witness many more relevant shots, but is also reliant on the decisions of the production team (and, as anguished and angry tweets reveal, these choices are often unpopular).
The real truth, however, has always been that neither option gets remotely close to capturing the entirety of any golf tournament, never mind a major championship. At the 2019 Open, for example, how many shots do you think the field played? The answer is 33,056 so neither the fan or the sofa-dweller is doing much more than scratching the surface of the action.
And within that bizarre distinction (no other sport is so multi-narrative in nature) golf always possessed a huge opportunity in the digital world.
A standard field is 156 players or, in other words, 156 stories.
That’s before we even consider the past (historical archives), the present (what happened in today’s round) and the future (what will happen tomorrow?).
There is also the course itself because, unlike other sports, there are 18 unique stages which will be impacted each day by a new pin position, changed yardage and different weather conditions.
It’s a bewildering prospect. Or a thrilling opportunity. Take your pick.
It also rather neatly explains why, at the 2019 Open in Royal Portrush, TEC had to deliver a technical service robust enough to cope with over 2 billion leaderboard requests.
Which brings us to Augusta National, home of the Masters, a club with a reputation for having its feet stuck in the mud when it comes to progress – and yet which has, in actual fact, embraced the digital revolution.
The ability to follow a particular player is a good example of how Augusta goes about its business. Up-to-date leaderboards are now, naturally, a given for any event, but the Masters retains a certain wilful awkwardness that has a canny intention.
The introduction of a single sign-on allows fans to favourite players on one device and have that information persist on any other devices they log into.
Because just as the television coverage is not all-encompassing – the club famously limits the morning action, keeping fans on tenterhooks or reminding them of their place (according to your viewpoint) – the modern Strokes Gained data is not available at the Masters.
In contrast, the track facility allows users to immediately pinpoint the location of any golfer and then follow him – every single shot graphically realised – throughout his entire circuit. Or simply watch it: the app and the website allow every shot of every round to be viewed (even when television coverage has yet to start).
It’s confining with one hand and providing an unprecedented feature with the other. Classic Masters.
Their approach to detail is also telling. Live television coverage is expected these days, but at Augusta it purposefully features famous stretches of the course thereby further fuelling its own mythology.
Slightly differently, a simple camera set-up at the driving range neatly combines those two spectator experiences: the sense of being on the property with the notion that you’ve got the best seat in the house (they even add shot-tracer).
Want to take the Augusta-at-home element one step further? There’s a ‘Taste of the Masters’ package that includes the famous paper cups and legendary pimento cheese filling. Some would argue gimmick, others catnip.
The tournament also introduced a Fantasy game this year which came with another telling fine point: players can be favourited across web, mobile and iPad. The sort of detail that provides delight way beyond its literal simplicity.
It might be that the Masters digital experience is best revealed in microcosm through Instagram stories.
Take Wednesday, the final practice day, an opportunity to prompt likes, shares and discussion, but to do it Masters-style, fanning the flames of its folklore.
It featured unusual angles of the property (ones unseen by traditional TV positions), a drawing of a plant (pure Augusta), zoomed-in range photos (to pique the interest of obsessives), a clubhouse beer tap (normally off limits), hats in the merchandise tent (straightforward I-want-to-be-there), a Masters sandwich (tradition), a Masters gnome (unexpected), a link to a story (an EA Sports tie-in), footage from the course (neatly termed ‘Patrons POV’), Xander Schauffele discussing the undulations of the course (followed by photos and graphics to astutely illustrate them), and images of past champions (iconic).
The American TV announcer Jim Nantz coined the phrase “a tradition like no other” for the tournament and Augusta National liked it so much they bought the trademark.
Like so much of what the club does, it’s a phrase that is easy to mock because the traditions don’t extent too far back in history. But even knowing all of this, the rest of the golf community happily wallows in it and the digital experience has become an integral part of feeding the hunger. It achieves exclusivity while permitting access. It limits as well as includes. It speaks of the old while being very new.
Harvey Jamison, a Creative Producer working with IMG Golf and previously Digital Content Editor at the European Tour, notes a smart less-is-more approach:
“It’s stripped back and pristine much like the championship itself.
Following the tournament’s social media channels is like being handed an access all areas pass – behind the scenes at the Champions Dinner, touring the Crow’s Nest, getting up-close with the world’s best golfers. It’s like having Augusta National in your pocket.
“When scrolling through your social media feed, a post from their channels is a disruption. It’s impactful. They use no emojis, only share one hashtag, and always stay on brand. Through video, imagery and Instagram-reels their traditions don’t slip and their audience continues to grow.”
The clever trick is that demand for the Masters is ever-increasing while the supply (the number of patrons who can actually attend) is never going to change. The gap in-between has been breached by digital.
Jamison makes a striking final point: “Patrons’ phones are banned at Augusta National yet sports fans across the globe want every inch of Augusta National on their screens.”
Who fills the gap? The tournament: “The Masters delivers.”