Sponsored by Shell Oil, Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf started as an extension of the tradition of “challenge matches” between professional golfers but became much more. The show made stars out of its participants and hosts and significantly impacted how golf was perceived, making it more accessible and appealing to a broader audience.
Airing from 1961-1970 and then again from 1994-2003, Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf set the stage for how golf could be presented on television, influencing future broadcasts and how the sport is covered today. It wasn’t just a show but a revolution that changed the sports broadcasting landscape.
The show will always be special to me because it’s how I first connected with the game as a kid in the late 80s. Reruns frequently aired in weekend slots – the players and locations were larger than life, and I was hooked instantly. I started collecting episodes on VHS in the late 90s and early 2000s, and I still have them all. They are still out there on Amazon if you are so inclined!
At least two books have been written on the topic. One by the show’s original producer and director, Fred Raphael, and the other in conjunction with Gene Sarazen’s daughter (Sarazen was the original host). In this post, we will look at the origins, history, and impact that Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf had on the golf world and televised sports, inspiring future made-for-TV events like the Skins Game, The Match, and more.
The 1960s were a transformative period for sports broadcasting. Television was becoming a household staple, and there was a growing appetite for sports content. Golf, although popular, was often seen as an elite sport, not easily accessible to the general public. This is where “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” came into the picture. The creators of the show had the vision to do something unprecedented: bring golf into the living rooms of everyday people. But they wanted to do more than showcase the sport; they aimed to create a holistic experience that blended sport, travel, and cultural exploration.
Shell Oil saw an opportunity to not only sponsor a show but to be part of something groundbreaking. The sponsorship was not just about brand visibility; it was about aligning with a program that broke the mold. Shell’s involvement provided the financial backing and corporate credibility to make the ambitious project a reality. While there were other sports shows on the air, none had the unique format that “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” offered. It wasn’t just about winning or losing a match; it was about the journey. The stroke play format allowed for a more relaxed atmosphere, where players could talk between shots, offering viewers an “inside-the-ropes” experience.
Early Years: 1961-1970
The series debuted in 1961, airing on Sunday afternoons and showcasing legends like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Sam Snead. Matches were 18 holes of stroke play at picturesque courses worldwide, providing a platform to grow the game globally. Each episode was filmed at a different golf course, offering viewers golf action and a mini-travel documentary. This was a masterstroke, as it broadened the show’s appeal beyond just golf enthusiasts.
Gene Sarazen hosted the show for most of its earlier matches, and It was initially a pre-recorded one-hour program that aired on Sunday afternoons. What set it apart was its unique format. Each contest was played as a stroke play match rather than match play. The show also included information about the host country for that week’s show and even some of the conversation between shots. This allowed the audience to feel part of a foursome traveling with the competitors and host rather than just being spectators.
Locations and Legends
The early years saw a variety of locations and players. In 1969, matches were held in places as diverse as Manila, Philippines, and Fajardo, Puerto Rico, featuring players like Ben Arda, Billy Casper, and Gene Littler. The show was notable for its international scope, bringing golf to audiences worldwide and showcasing courses from Buenos Aires to Tokyo. Many of the courses in our Legendary Links series played host to an episode of the show, such as Portmarnock, Ballybunion, Paraparaumu Beach, Pine Valley, and Royal County Down.
In its formative years, the show featured a who’s who of golf legends, including Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Ben Hogan. These players brought their A-game and unique personalities, making each episode a blend of high-level competition and entertainment. It was a pioneering effort that left an indelible mark on how golf was presented to audiences worldwide. In addition to Sarazen, who also played a match at the Old Course in St. Andrews against Henry Cotton, the early run featured George Rogers and Jimmy Demaret as additional hosts.
The two standout matches from this era are Nicklaus vs Snead at Pebble Peach in 1963 and Hogan vs Snead in 1965, from Houston CC. From 1969 until the end of the early run, the format expanded to add a third golfer for knock-out, tournament-style play; the most entertaining of these was George Knudson’s ball-striking display in his match against Lee Elder and George Archer in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
The End of the First Run
The initial reception of the show was positive, as it offered something different from the usual golf tournaments. It provided a more intimate look into the game, the strategies employed by players, and even their personalities. Televising the banter between shots and information about the host countries added layers of depth missing from conventional broadcasts.
While the show featured numerous memorable matches, some iconic ones were on legendary golf courses worldwide. For instance, the 1970 match between Christy O’Connor and Bob Goalby was held at Ballybunion Golf Club, Old Course in Ireland. Another notable match in 1970 involved Roberto De Vicenzo, Tom Weiskopf, and Dave Stockton at Ranelagh Golf Club in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Many viewers first saw the iconic Pine Valley in a 1962 match between Byron Nelson and Gene Littler.
The show halted production in 1970, the exact reasons are not fully documented. It could be a combination of factors such as changes in sponsorship, the rise of other forms of golf competitions, or even shifts in viewer interest due to the growing popularity of the NFL on Sundays.
Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf was revived in 1994 after over 20 years off the air, now produced by Jack Nicklaus Productions. The first match featured Arnold Palmer vs Jack Nicklaus at Pinehurst No. 2, attracting major hype and viewership as the legends faced off again. Gary Player served as host, and the show featured renowned courses worldwide to showcase golf’s global appeal. With the advent of the Golf Channel in 1995, shows like Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf and “Challenge Golf” found their way back on the air, filling timeslots through the mid-2000s.
The revival featured stars like Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Paul Azinger, and Annika Sorenstam at iconic venues like Pebble Beach, St Andrews Old Course, and Winged Foot. It provided intimate access to top players through conversations and insights from the host and on-course reporters. Matches were still 18 holes of stroke play in exotic, beautiful settings.
Like its predecessor, the show’s second run featured one-on-one matchups between top professional golfers. However, this time, the production quality was significantly enhanced, thanks to advancements in broadcasting technology. High-definition cameras and improved sound quality gave viewers an enhanced experience.
Impact and Legacy
The second run was well-received, both by fans who remembered the original series and by newcomers drawn to the sport by its rising stars. The show continued to serve as a showcase for some of the world’s most beautiful golf courses, and it provided a more intimate look at the players, adding depth to their public personas.
Though ending again in 2003, the revived series brought the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf legacy to a new generation. It inspired similar made-for-TV events and allowed fans to see their favorite players’ talents and personalities up close. The show introduced spectacular courses, further growing the game’s worldwide popularity.
Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf left a lasting impact on golf and sports broadcasting in several ways:
- Introduced golf courses and destinations worldwide to viewers, growing the game globally.
- Provided intimate access to golf legends, letting fans see their talent and personalities up close.
- Inspired similar made-for-TV golf events like Skins Game and the iterations of The Match.
- Showcased evolution of equipment and rise of the power game from the 60s to the 90s.
- Set standards for graphics, technology, and announcing in golf broadcasting.
In a world before Streaming Services, Social Media & the Internet, the series brought the game closer to the masses and was the forefather of modern golf on TV. Its cinematography, conversations between players, and travelogue feel influenced how golf is broadcast today. Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf left a lasting legacy as a platform to grow golf worldwide and bring the sport’s biggest stars to fans in an entertaining, intimate style.
Further Reading and Viewing
Gene Sarazen & Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf
by Al Barkow, Mary Ann Sarazen
Summary: Behind-the-scenes story of this ground-breaking golf show from the birth of televised sports, as witnessed by the show’s writer, Barkow, and host Sarazen’s daughter. Includes 50 historical photos and 15 private letters to the legendary Bobby Jones.
My Mulligan to Golf: The Hilarious Story of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf & the Beginning of the Senior Tour
by Fred Raphael
Summary: Fred Raphael was the producer and director of the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf Series from 1960 to 1970, and this book reveals his experiences in that role. The book also tells the story of how the Senior Tour, now called the Champions Tour, was born with Fred’s creation of the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Tournament.
The Shell Book of Golf
by Peter Aliss
Summary: The Shell Book of Golf, written by renowned golf commentator Peter Alliss, provides insight into golf techniques, rules, and famous courses. It includes a foreword by golfer Tony Jacklin and was originally published in 1981 by David & Charles Publishers. The 231-page hardcover features sections on playing strategy, golf stories, course guides, and a glossary of terms. Overall, it aims to educate golfers on various aspects of the game through Alliss’s deep knowledge and entertaining writing style.
- Amazon – Selection of VHS & DVD episodes
- YouTube – Here is a great playlist of classic episodes
- PlutoTV – Full Episodes & Matches from both early and revival runs
- Golf.com – 7 of the best episodes of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf
- GutsyGolf.com – 5 Best episodes of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf
- GolfPass – Courses You Can Play – Public Courses that Hosted Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf
- Wikipedia – Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf – some history and match listings