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Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf: Looking Back

Shell's Wonderful World of Golf

Sponsored by Shell Oil, Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf started as an extension of the “challenge match” exhibitions between professional golfers but became much more. The show made stars out of its participants and household names of its hosts. The show significantly impacted how golf was perceived, making it more accessible and appealing to a broader audience.

Airing from 1962-1970 and then again from 1994-2003, Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf set the stage for how golf would 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. Many of the courses featured in our Legendary Links series were featured, including Pine Valley, Portmarnock, Ballybunion, Pebble Peach, Royal County Down, and Paraparaumu Beach.

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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! In this post’s Where to Watch section, we’ll show you how to find them online.

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. In this post, we will look at the origins, history, and impact of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf on the golf world and televised sports, inspiring future made-for-TV events like the Skins Game, The Match, and more.

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Genesis

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. The show’s creators 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 but 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 plenty of other sports shows were on the air, none had the unique format that Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf offered. The informal stroke play format allowed for a more relaxed atmosphere, where players could talk between shots, offering viewers an “inside-the-ropes” experience.

60s golf tv

Early Years: 1961-1970

The series debuted in 1962, airing for one hour on Sunday afternoons and showcasing legends like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, and Sam Snead. Gene Sarazen and George Rogers hosted the show for most of its earlier matches, later joined by Jimmy Demaret. Sarazen also teed it up himself in a match at the Old Course at St. Andrews against Henry Cotton.

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. The show got off to an inauspicious start, filming the premier episode in New Jersey in June 1961, as we documented in our post on Pine Valley, but found its footing quickly. Initially aired on CBS, it eventually found a home on all three major networks.

What set the show apart was its unique format. Each contest was played as a stroke play match rather than match play. The show also included segments full of information about the host country for that week’s show and even some of the conversation between shots. This allowed the audience to feel like they were part of a foursome traveling with the competitors and host rather than just being spectators.

global golf

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.

In its formative years, the show featured many soon-to-be-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.

All told the show filmed and televised 92 one-hour matches in 48 countries, including one on every continent. They reached an estimated audience of 10-12 million viewers each week. The show was nominated for two Emmys, winning in 1966.

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.

sam snead putting

The End of the First Run

The initial reception of the show was positive, as it offered something different from the usual tournament broadcasts. It provided a more intimate look into the game, the strategies employed by players, and allowed their personalities to come through. Televising the banter between shots and a travelogue about the host countries and locations added layers of depth missing from conventional broadcasts.

While the show featured numerous memorable matches, some iconic ones took place on legendary golf courses worldwide. 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 1961 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.

st andrews sarazen

Revival: 1994-2003

Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf was revived in 1994 after over 20 years off the air, produced by Jack Nicklaus Productions. The first match aptly 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 for the initial match, ceding duties to Jack Whitaker and Bob Rossburg. The show continued the tradition of featuring 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.

Like its predecessor, the show’s second run featured one-on-one matchups between top pros over 18 holes of stroke play. 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.

Shell's wonderful world of golf venues - st andrews, pebble beach. pinehurst, winged foot

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.

The show’s producer, Fred Raphael, was also responsible for creating the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, which would become the Senior, now Champions Tour. He believes the Shell program was the catalyst for what came after, and there would have been no Champions Tour without Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.

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.

present day kid streaming shell golf

PuttView Golf Books

PuttView Books are detailed yardage and green maps designed to help golfers save strokes, especially under tournament conditions. They offer precise visual representations of courses, including topographic slope percentages, fairway arrows for slopes over 4%, and a dual view of greens accurate to the millimeter. The books are printed on high-quality waterproof paper, sized to fit traditional yardage book covers, and are USGA legal. 

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Further Reading and Viewing

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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.

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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.

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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.

Videos

1965 – Hogan vs Snead
Knudson vs Edler vs Archer – Brazil
Nicklaus vs Watson

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