Team Challenge Celebrity Golf Tourney

By: Jay Flemma


I love when Tom Belton calls me, because he has a good idea every time. Sometimes he picks my brain for legal analysis of the confluence of sports and intellectual property over the Internet. Sometimes he asks me the writer's view of a new wrinkle he has for competitive team golf formats. Most importantly, every time he calls, he has a groundbreaking vision for promoting team golf and empowering golf fans in America. With his track record of success, it's no wonder both the pro golf industry and the major sports networks are listening.

This summer, Belton's latest team golf tournament takes center stage. The Pro Sports Team Challenge celebrity golf shootout June 6-8 at Fantasy Springs Resort in Palm Springs, Calif., is far more than your average, vacuous, buzz-roaching, cringe-inducing Celebrity Dance of the Sand Crabs. Here, truly timeless sports icons (like Barkley, Lemieux and George Brett), and present-day titans (like LaDanian Tomlinson and Michael Strahan) will collide to earn over a quarter of a million dollars for various charities. Of course, we'll also get some humorous moments of wayward shots ending with a crash of glass and a tearing of foliage.

Nevertheless, more importantly than that altruistic and entertaining end - charity - the eyes of professional golf and the major networks will be watching how Belton's popular "strat.e.golf" Internet platform enables the fans to make coaching decision translates in actual competition and how his "accelerated scoring," where winners in match play get more than just one point for winning their match, makes play more exciting.

A More Interesting Way: 2X Players, Accelerated Scoring

Let's review. Two of Belton's team-golf scoring modifications will be in play for the Team Challenge: the fan vote for 2x player, and accelerated scoring. "My two greatest loves are golf and technology" Belton says fondly, relaxing and smiling a broad, sincere smile. "I always felt that the Internet, through instantaneous dissemination of information and through news sites, blogs and social networking, could have an impact on the fan's sports experience far beyond after-the-fact, water-cooler rehashing on Monday morning. That's why I came up with the "Strat.e.golf" Internet platform, so that fans could have an impact on the game before and during the competition."

"Strat.e.golf" . . . I know, the name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue like a T.S. Eliot poem, but we can ring up the branding department later. What Strat.e.golf does is more important - it's an Internet platform where fans can log onto www.teamchallenge.com, register as a "ProCoach" for their favorite team - this time baseball, football, hockey, or basketball - and then vote on crucial strategy and tactical playing decisions. The results of the fan vote are then used in actual play.

"We debuted the platform at the Pro team Golf League U.S.A. vs. Canada matches last year" Belton continued. "PTGL co-founder Dave Braun and I both love team golf, but wanted scoring to be more exciting and, since sports fans live so vicariously through sports, we wanted fans to have a closer experience, inside the virtual ropes and virtual locker room."

The ropes just came down in the biggest way. After signing up for their "team" ProCoaches will debate the identity of which player's match will count for double the points. The line between fantasy sports and reality sports just got erased as the fans will have a say in the outcome of the matches, which may have the team captains reaching for the Rolaids and Bactine. "That's a great wrinkle in and of itself," gushed team golf fan and lifelong Bethpage Black player Chuck Cordova energetically. "But when you factor in accelerated scoring, you're looking at golf matches moving from soccer games to track meets. Match play for teams has become exponentially more exciting."

With accelerated scoring, if a player wins his match 4 and 3 (meaning he is ahead by four holes with only three to play) he gets seven points, not merely one - four for the number of holes by which he won his match, and three more for the holes left over. Now, you get credit for not only beating your opponent, but also by how much you win by. The earlier you close out your opponent, the more points you earn. If the same winner who won 4 and 3 happens to also be the 2x player as voted by the fans, he'll earn a whopping 14 points. "We could have ourselves a track meet," quipped Belton with a smile.

This year's celebrity Team Challenge will feature three rounds of nine-hole match play, best ball doubles matches, with each team meeting the three others one time in a round robin on Saturday, followed by a modified skins match the next day. "Sunday, there will be four groups going off, with one player from each team in each foursome," Belton explained. "The best score on each hole gets three points, second best gets two, third gets one, and last gets zero. If two people tie, they split points, so if two people tie for first, they each split the points for first and second - 2.5 each."

With the 2x, in an 18-hole skins match there's 108 points in play. "That's a lot of points," Cordova points out. "Watching a team golf match just went from watching something akin to a cross-country road race, where you know the outcome and you're just waiting for everyone to cross the finish, to a football game where a 'Hail Mary' pass can strike from nowhere and change the outcome." He's right. The matches are more likely to remain exciting till the end because there are always a lot of points in play each hole, especially when the 2x players are on the course.

More importantly, the Team Challenge matches, Pro team Golf League events, and future team events that Belton organizes will continue to showcase both the strat.e.golf fan interaction platform and team strategies to a broader audience. "Last year the fans also got to pick the order in which the players went off in the matches," Belton explained. "We used Nationwide and Canadian Tour players, complete with detailed stats on each played so the fans could make educated decisions and they loved that type of empowerment.

Promoting Team Golf in America Helps Ryder Cup Fortunes

More importantly, with fans and golf industry experts closely watching the analysis of match-ups and player attributes such as success or failure in four-balls vs. foursomes in team chat rooms, (virtual locker rooms), we learn more about the dynamics of putting together winning teams for doubles competitions. While such empirical data will be less at the Team Challenge since the all-star captains pick the order in which the players will tee off, the platform will be in play at future Pro Sports Team Challenges.

"By evaluating the players' tendencies, the fans' decisions as ProCoaches were the same as at the Ryder Cup, and the double points added a further variable. We got a lot of good data from the PTGL matches," Belton admitted.

Therein lies the greatest value of Belton's ideas; he is contributing strongly to the growth of team golf in the U.S. His work in the trenches - the feeder tours and the grass roots level provides analysis of team play dynamics at the speed of the Internet as fans, team owners and players interact electronically with one another. This is a revolutionary paradigm taking full advantage state of the art methods of communication (Internet) and making it impact on course decisions.

Indeed, team golf may be the salvation of the PGA Tour, which struggles with a loss of identity every year after the PGA Championship finishes. Since the golf industry insists on having its majors conclude in August, before Lord Football ascends its yearly throne and the baseballs playoffs heat up in thermonuclear fashion, pro golf from September to February becomes secondary, an afterthought. The FedEx Cup is universally recognized as contrived fantasy golf.

"I'd certainly rather watch team golf than Finchem's Folly, the FedEx flop," snarled another lifelong golfer as he hit balls on the Bethpage practice range. "You tell me which kids would rather watch on TV or play on a video game: a team event or a slow motion points' race? I don't find the FedEx Cup interesting, let alone and exciting competition. It's artificial," he continued, frowning. "But team golf with this accelerated scoring and double points?" he asks to himself. "We've moved match-play team scoring into overdrive and we can take it to a national level. You tell me - do you actually think Boston vs. New York at Bethpage Black wouldn't sell massive ticket numbers? Especially if we had Tiger for double points against Rory Sabbatini or Phil Mickelson? We would make as much noise as we did during the 2002 U.S. Open."

The fan, who wished to remain anonymous, has a point. The Tour Championship is still struggling to find its identity and still will never have the cache of the Players Championship because it's not played on a truly memorable gem of a golf course like Sawgrass. The rest of the fall season is a letdown: tourneys on courses no one heard or cares about. Team golf - be it LPGA, PGA or mini-tour offers a highly competitive, meat-and-potatoes alternative to the silly season and "casino golf" tournaments for the "on the bubble" crowd seeking to keep their card.

Jack Nicklaus said back in the 1980s that team golf pitting city against city - for example, Boston vs. New York - was "the salvation of the tour." Nobody listened to him because they were preconditioned and afraid of change. But as the Ryder Cup has grown, so too has the public's desire to participate in similar team competitions, for college, state, local community and yes, even country. Public approval is a currency that Finchem repeatedly fritters away, but men like Belton and Steve Czaban, founder of the Potomac Cup matches - which pit the best amateurs in Maryland vs. the best in Virginia in a yearly Ryder Cup match - have attracted the imprimatur and well-wishes of state and national tours and golf associations.

Belton's bright ideas sweep in like a galleon in full sail, ready to instantly be implemented by any level of competition, from the Ryder Cup right down to the local, beer-swilling scramble. This year, the Pro Sports Team Challenge will be featured on Fox Sports Net for two hours on Saturday and Sunday June 20-12 and have six hours of pre-event coverage as well. Fox has identified two key personalities to co-host, (announced soon by the network), and a well-known golf-loving celebrity will co-host the star-studded "pairings party" the night before the competition with tournament commissioner Charles Barkley. Sweepstakes winning fans will not only participate in the pro-am, but will get to hand the results of the fan votes to the All-star team captains before the pairings are finally revealed. Moreover, for each ProCoach who signs up to participate, the total charity purse increases by one dollar, with a minimum of $250,000 in play.

Sure, other team leagues and events have come and gone. But the Team Challenge is not some left-handed, squirrelly, corporate shill gig. I am not being paid to gush about this event, just observe and report - and "brutally frank" is right in my power zone. The questions of 1) team golf strategy and 2) the intersection of golf and its media presentation that are at issue here are too important to be glossed over in some vapid puff piece that trades probing introspection for fawning adulation. The stinging losses in the last three Ryder Cups illuminate these proceedings like a halogen torch.

Tom Belton is sure doing his part to make sure it never happens again. With his ideas, the decades of Team USA being crumpled like paper-mache before the cameras on the grandest stage, may be in the past.



Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.


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