Golf is beginning to overcome the cliché of being an elitist and minority sport in Spain. This is partly due to the opening of municipal golf schools, where children can learn and play at reasonable prices (no more expensive than any football or basketball school), and also to the successes of Sergio García, Azahara Muñoz, Carlota Ciganda, Rafa Cabrera-Bello and, especially, Jon Rahm.
Rahm, from Vizcaya, was the winner and absolute star of the recent Open de España. He is following in the footsteps of Tiger Woods and in less than two years as a professional is already one of the five best players in the world ranking and a favourite at all the major tournaments.
With a record such as Jon Rahm’s, the authorities are being forced to take notice of the importance of golf. That is why the rise in the rate of IVA (value added tax) imposed by the Spanish government is so incomprehensible; it has had a serious negative effect on hundreds of clubs all over the country, and some have been forced to close.
The presence of the Minister of Sport, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, at the prizegiving ceremony at the Spanish Open was a clear sign of the authorities’ renewed interest in this sport. In response to those who consider that golf is still a minority sport, we only have to quote one statistic: 47,218 people attended the four-day tournament in Madrid last month, which was a landmark in professional championships in this country.
Rahm’s success takes us back to the golden age of golf, in the heyday of Severiano Ballesteros, José María Olazábal and Miguel Ángel Jiménez, and it is also serving to attract more young people to golf, inspired by Rahm’s age, rebellious attitude and ambition.
Sources at the Royal Spanish Golf Federation (RFEG) point out that golf tourism generates two billion euros a year for the State.
“People still tend to think of this as an elitist sport, even though golf can be played for eight or ten euros. The administrations have not treated us well, but they are beginning to realise that this sport generates wealth and thousands of jobs,” explained the president of the RFEG, Gonzaga Escauriaza.
The federation has also come under criticism. Although the success of the Open is generally recognised, some discordant voices point out that the tournament did not take place at all last year and this year’s competition was only possible thanks to assistance from the European Tour.
Among the fiercest critics is Miguel Ángel Jiménez, who is still a very active player at the age of 54. “The tournament was organised because the European Tour provided a million euros for it. The federation provided 250,000 euros. That is ridiculous, when a million are already guaranteed,” he told El País newspaper a few weeks ago.
In the same interview, he said that his sport “is stagnant” in Spain: “The federation does nothing. Despite the players we have had, we are still stuck in the past. People still think we’re elitist. They need to do something about that. If the ones who are there now can’t find a solution to the stigmatisation of this sport, they should go and others should take over. We’re not moving forward,” he said.
Jiménez isn’t just an experienced golfer; he has paid money so that some professional tournaments have been able to take place in the past, opened a golf school in Torremolinos and supported tours and competitions to encourage children to take up the sport.
After seven consecutive years when the number of federated golfers dropped in Spain - by as much as six per cent in 2014 - there has been a turning point in recent months. Not only did the successful men’s Open de España encourage people to take up golf, but there have also been the Andalucía Masters at Valderrama and the women’s Open de España, the last two editions of which have taken place in Malaga province.
The Andalucía Masters and the women’s tournament which has been won twice by Azahara Muñoz were made possible by the contribution from the Junta de Andalucía’s Tourism Department, the Malaga provincial government and the Mancomunidad de Municipios of the Western Costa del Sol.
In southern Spain golf is not only a sport, but a strategy for tourism. Last year it attracted over half a million visitors to Andalucía. On the Costa del Sol, with its 70 courses, the golf culture is more established than in other areas, because of its economic impact on tourism.
Television viewers are also showing more interest. According to Movistar, which has its own golf channel, so far this year the average daily audience has risen by 19 per cent, compared with the same period in 2017.
Although few private companies in Spain sponsor golf, there are now more than 30 agreements in force. El Corte Inglés and Movistar have their own tour and Banco Santander supports the Ladies Tour. Others such as Air Europa, Osborne, Solán de Cabras, Halcón, Ilunion and Segura Viudas collaborate with different tournaments, although to a lesser extent.
More surprising is the sponsorship of players. No Spanish player, not even Rahm, García or Muñoz, has an agreement with a Spanish company. All their sponsors are foreign, such as Adidas, Lacoste, Nike or Ping. However, it is probably just a matter of time, now that people are starting to realise how profitable it could be to promote this sport in Spain.