Former women’s world No1 tennis player Ash Barty will make her return to sport this summer at a new Ryder Cup-style golf competition for A-list athletes, the Icons Series.
Barty, who stunned tennis by quitting last month, is due to be joined by football stars Harry Kane and Pep Guardiola, boxer Canelo Alvarez and swimmer Michael Phelps at the event.
Golfing greats Fred Couples and Ernie Els will lead USA and Rest of the World teams at the inaugural Icons Series match on 30 June and 1 July at Liberty National, New Jersey.
Organisers hope to tap into booming interest in golf with a new concept that showcases a diverse array of world-famous sportspeople competing at a high level in unfamiliar settings.
Barty, 25, is perhaps the most intriguing name to have signed up so far, having kept sports fans guessing as to her next move since her sudden retirement four weeks ago.
The Australian, who also played professional cricket during a previous break from tennis, is engaged to club pro golfer Garry Kissick and plays off a low single-figure handicap.
“Ash is phenomenal. She can play cricket, she can play golf. She is very talented and could probably play at a high level in all of those sports,” said Icons chief executive Thomas Brookes.
“It was a definite surprise to us that she retired but we’ll take it as she is super excited to play in the event. She’s a three or four handicap golfer but that’s coming down as she plays.
“Ash loves the concept. Not only is she getting a golf experience she’ll enjoy, she’s doing it alongside icons she’s probably grown up watching. That’s an appeal for all the players.”
Who else is joining Barty at first Icons Series event?
Former boxer Oscar de la Hoya and ex-NFL players Michael Strahan and Ben Roethlisberger have also signed up for the first match, while further big names – including an NBA megastar – will be announced soon.
The Icons Series is set to expand to multiple events in 2023 and three dates per year from 2024 onwards, with locations in Australia and Japan lined up.
Players will be divided between teams of 14 and pitted against each other in nine-hole match play formats, with prizes going to the winners’ chosen charities.
Participants are chosen from a 200-strong master list of athletes who are known to play golf to a very high standard, with most boasting handicaps in the single figures.
“We have exceptions who are really big icons just on the border of that. Pep Guardiola is a good example,” said Brookes.
“He says he is off 10 or 12 but I’ve seen him shoot low numbers. We don’t want it to be a ‘hit and giggle’ celebrity bit of fun. There’s a reason we only have athletes.
“They are competitors, it’s in their DNA, and we really want to expose their skills and temperament when in a different sporting field.”
Some players will wear microphones, while cameras will also capture fly-on-the-wall footage from team rooms.
“They will feel like a Ryder Cup player for two days,” said Brookes. “We want to see how they deal with that.”
Kane ‘hits it a mile and plays off two’
Kane showed his love of golf by jetting to Augusta for the final round of the Masters last weekend within hours of finishing a Premier League game with Tottenham Hotspur.
“Harry hits it a mile. I know quite a few people who say that he is the longest off the tee that they’ve ever played with,” said Brookes.
“When we first started talking to Harry he was playing off four but now it’s two. He is clearly investing time in his game.”
Icons Series organisers have already secured a TV deal with US network NBC Peacock and an unnamed UK broadcaster.
Further deals in key markets related to the playing talent – such as Mexico for Canelo and Australia for Barty – are under discussion. Tickets are due to go on sale today.
The success of made-for-TV formats such as The Match and debate around the future of the men’s tours suggests there is room for more disruptors.
“I think it’s fair to say that golf is quite divided at the moment and while we are not a pro event we certainly aim to unify,” said Brookes.
“Bringing all of this talent together not only does that but it also allows us to reach more diverse audiences that golf maybe doesn’t do.
“There’s an amateur level of interest that has rocketed over the last couple of years, and the game certainly needs some change at professional level.
“Not everybody’s clear on how but we are not really targeting that space. We’re bringing something unique and different that can hopefully entertain people.”