Written By: Tony Covey

Last Tuesday night on the eve of the start of 2014 PGA Show (indoor edition), I gave up a perfectly good dinner with the nice people at Nike Golf to sit through a 2 hour (if you count the Q&A session that followed) presentation led by TaylorMade Golf CEO, Mark King, to kick off what he hopes will prove to be a new industry-wide initiative called Hack Golf.

I thought I’d finally be getting eyes on the long-rumored non-conforming lineup of clubs from TaylorMade. Instead, King was joined by National Golf Foundation CEO, Joe Beditz, PGA of America President, Ted Bishop, and “influential business thinker”, Gary Hamel, to talk about the latest attempt at saving the game of golf.

Basically I traded a real steak for some nebulous details, a collection of entertaining one-liners, and a whole lot of doom and gloom from Beditz and Bishop about the decline and inevitable death of the game of golf. A Sarah McLachlan soundtrack and a neglected Schnauzer would have complemented the festivities perfectly.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve chosen a TaylorMade event and left wishing I could take a mulligan (ask me about the George Thorogood debacle of 2012 some time).

King did an excellent job of tapping into what it is about golf that makes us love the game, but as I’ll explain in a bit more detail below, I was less than enthused by presentations from Joe Beditz and Ted Bishop. Gary Hamel was a different story.

Hamel’s presentation, equal parts good business sense and motivational speaking, really brought home the larger point of Hack Golf. Basically, guys within the industry have mismanaged the game, and bungled every opportunity to stimulate growth within the game (my words, not Hamel’s). We need different people doing different things. The establishment’s status quo ain’t getting it done.

“Traditional and Innovation CAN Coexist” – Gary Hamel

And while I might be tempted to make a joke about living in a van down by the river, with his assertion that Traditional and Innovation CAN coexist, Hamel was the one guy in the bunch that convinced me that maybe something can (and should) be done to improve the state of the game.

Given TaylorMade’s involvement (and investment), and Mark King’s role in launching this whole Hack Golf thing, you might be surprised to learn is that King seems to believe that kicking establishment guys (like King himself) to the curb, and bringing in fresh ideas from outside the industry is really the only way this Hack Golf thing is going to work.

I’m certain he’s at least right about that.

What is Mark King’s Motivation?

I’ve never met TaylorMade CEO Mark King. I can tell you that his team is fiercely loyal, and anything viewed as a personal attack on Mark King, is pretty much taken personally by all.

That tells me something about the man.

I’ve been to 4 PGA Shows, and have visited TaylorMade headquarters 3 times, and yet I’ve never been closer to him than I was last Tuesday night.

While my front row seat put me close enough to read the label on the Coors Light bottle Mr. King kept at arm’s reach during the Q&A session that followed (and no doubt by the end could have used another), my reasonable proximity hardly put me close enough to read Mr. King’s mind.

future

I tend to size people up pretty quickly. Give me one minute of your time and I’ll decide whether or not I like you. One more and I decide whether or not I trust you. Anything longer and I’m overthinking it.

With that in mind, I would say that there are a solid handful of big time golf execs who I’ve been around long enough to have a sense of what makes them tick, but Mark King isn’t one of them.

I don’t know Mark King, and 99% of you trying to figure out what this Hack Golf thing is all about don’t know him either.

As a result, the discussions we’ve had around Mr. King’s real motivation for throwing company money (5 million of it) and resources behind the new TaylorMade-led Hack Golf initiative, are wholly speculative, but that doesn’t mean we’re clueless.

The easy cynical response (and it’s the prevailing one within the industry right now) is that Hack Golf is just another TaylorMade money grab. It’s absolutely possible, even likely, that is the case, but I’m working off another theory.

Mark King has been at TaylorMade for 30-some-odd years. He’s conquered giants (Callaway), taken his company to the top, and dominated the category (metalwoods) that TaylorMade sees as its birthright in ways never thought possible. At the peak of the RocketBallz craze, TaylorMade controlled 52% of the metalwoods market. That is absolutely the top of the mountain.

It’s not unreasonable to think he’s almost done. Hack Golf is his Bill Gates moment; his legacy. It’s his chance to do something to leave the game better than he found it.

I’d take the long odds that there’s real sincerity in his Hack Golf initiative. It is For the Love of Golf. Unfortunately, I also believe that the motives of others involved in the project are anything but altruistic.

So What Exactly Is Hack Golf?

(Taken from www.hackgolf.org)

“Hack Golf is a pioneering initiative aimed at making golf more fun for everyone. The premise: we need to re-invigorate the golf experience to ensure the game continues to thrive in the 21st century.
Designed as an open innovation and collaborative platform, Hack Golf brings together passionate golfers, interested non-golfers, and industry leaders—indeed, anyone with ideas and approaches to increase the fun factor in golf.“

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There’s plenty of additional information on the Hack Golf website, but the Cliff Notes version is that Hack Golf seeks to crowd source the future of the game golf. It starts with a question like, What would golf look like if we reinvented it with an eye towards the realities of the world we live in today?

While I’m not sure I’m completely buying analogies to Open Source software projects like Linux or Apache, skill level of the participants aside, I get the point. Hack Golf seeks to use the larger community (and even those outside the community) to advance, and perhaps even fundamentally change the game of golf.

Basically Hack Golf aims to solicit input from golfers and non-golfers with the goal of developing new and exciting ways to play the game of golf. Maybe that means non-conforming equipment. Maybe it’s different formats, bigger holes, etc. Maybe it’s something that hasn’t been dreamed of yet.

The driving force for the initiative is that golf participation is dwindling and if we (the golf community and those just curious about golf) don’t do something to reverse the tides of decline (subtext: A mission at which the USGA continues to fail miserably), the game we know and love will eventually cease to exist.

Once sufficient feedback has been received, the bodies behind Hack Golf (ostensibly TaylorMade at this point) will experiment with those ideas and hopefully find a few things that can actually help grow the game.

Now is probably a good time to mention the importance of semantics. TaylorMade is investing five million dollars of company money, and Mr. King claims they do so without any expectation of a return on their investment. The Hack Golf-driven ideas that eventually get implemented will be called experiments. Even at TaylorMade, it’s probably ok if Hack Golf experiments fail, but business initiatives, even those without expected returns, probably can’t.

Everything That’s Wrong With Hack Golf

Ok…everything is probably too broad. Given more time, I’m sure I could find even more reasons why I think Hack Golf, without some pretty quick changes, is going to fail, but here’s a few to get us started.

beditz-no-fun

“Hack Golf” is a Polarizing Name that brings a negative connotation to what should be a positive movement

I came from the computer industry. I get the whole hack thing. To grow the game we need to tear down barriers – strip the code if you will – and rebuild it from the ground up.

Hacking, in the right context, is a good thing.

For any project of this magnitude in any other industry Hack probably works, but in golf…man, there’s such a stigma attached to hackers and hacking. The self-proclaimed serious golfer crowd isn’t going to want any part of it, and if Hack Golf is going to work, it needs to be all-inclusive, both in practice and in name.

TaylorMade’s name on the initiative Limits Wide-Spread Industry Participation

During his presentation, Mark King suggested he wants Hack Golf to be all inclusive. He’s optimistic that Callaway, Titleist, and every other golf company will join the initiative. That’s never going to happen, and I suspect Mr. King knew as much going into this thing.

Shortly after the official launch of Hack Golf, I spoke with executives at several golf companies. Sufficed to say, TaylorMade will be going it alone. Other golf companies have their own grow-the-game initiatives, and it’s fair to say there is more than a little skepticism about what the actual motivation for Hack Golf is.

The overwhelming sense within the industry is that that Hack Golf is merely an elaborate plan for TaylorMade to sell a different kind of golf club, and I can assure you there’s nobody else in the golf industry that’s overly interested in helping TaylorMade move more product.

One highly placed official was actually excited about TaylorMade’s involvement; suggesting it was a sign the company is further distancing itself from enthusiasts and influencers (the core golfer if you will). Some would call that jumping the shark.

Another higher-up type declined to say much at all, telling me it would be inappropriate to comment on another company’s marketing initiatives.

You want the industry’s temperature on Hack Golf…there it is.

It’s very difficult to reshape an industry when that industry as a whole is dubious of your motivation.

beditz-image-problem

For Some, Money is a Painfully Obvious Motivating Factor

More so than any other piece of the Hack Golf presentation, an over-emphasis of the financial aspects of the decline of the game by Joe Beditz, CEO of the National Golf Foundation, and Ted Bishop, President of the PGA of America led me to question not only their individual motivations, but whether or not the need for growth actually exists.

If we’re going to bring new golfers to the game, shouldn’t it be for the experience of golf itself; the camaraderie, the integrity of the game, and whatever fun comes from a good walk spoiled?

Sure, I get that there is a need to be more inclusive and I’m sure we can find new ways to play golf or something loosely based on it, but Mr. Beditz, and Mr. Bishop spent far too much time talking about the number of rounds lost, and the millions of dollars that are no longer flowing into the pockets of the membership of the PGA of America.

What I took away from their presentations is that Hack Golf isn’t about turning the tides on the decline of game itself; it’s about the reversing the decline in revenue the game generates for the service providers. I can respect Ted Bishop’s obligation to speak for, and protect the interests of his constituency, but little in his comments suggested a motive for growth beyond money’s sake.

The vibe was one of  if we can get them to play golf (or something like it) it will mean more money for us.

“There is a place in golf right now for anything that makes the game more enjoyable for people to play it” – Ted Bishop

We should be talking about how awesome the game of golf is, how it brings generations together competitively or not, and how we go about continuing to share this most amazing game with generations to come.

Instead 2 guys talked more than they should have about how the money doesn’t flow like it did in the good old days.

If one of the hindrances to growth is the perceptions that golf is a sport dominated by rich white men hell bent on protecting their own interests, Bishop and Beditz did very little to convey otherwise.

Golf is no different than any other industry. Bubbles burst, businesses decline, and new things take their place. The motivation for revitalizing anything should never be the need for a segment of the population to regain lost income. In any environment the best will survive and thrive; the rest will just need to find something else to do.

The game of golf offers no exception. Even here, entitlement only goes so far.

bishop

Grass Roots Movements Need to Start at the bottom

You know..at the roots…of the grass. I’m pretty sure that’s why they’re called grass roots movements.

By the letter it’s basically impossible for organizations at the top (TaylorMade, PGA of America) to start a grass roots movement. It just doesn’t make any damn sense.

While the stated goal is to be all-inclusive, Hack Golf in its infancy isn’t a for golfers by golfers (and non-golfers) movement. It’s a movement by TaylorMade with the support of the PGA of America.

Who is it for?

Cynics will say it’s for TaylorMade. What a great way to create a new (that’s code for non-conforming) revenue stream.

What I witnessed suggests it’s for the financial benefit of those struggling in the golf industry.

But for golfers?

I’m far from convinced. I’m told it’s ok to be skeptical right now, and I most definitely am.

Golf Is Just Like Skiing?

During Tuesday night’s presentation, it was suggested that parallels can be drawn between golf and what happened with skiing and snowboarding. The story as told was that snowboarding saved skiing.

It’s preposterous to think that if not for snowboarding mountains would have shut down en masse and everyone would have stopped skiing. The analogy also plays fast and loose with the realities of that particular situation.

In the beginning, snowboarders weren’t exactly welcome on most slopes. There was genuine animosity between skiers and snowboarders. Snowboarders were outsiders; the hackers of the snow world.

The skiing industry didn’t invent snowboarding as an alternative revenue stream – they fought it every step of the way. Eventually ski operators figured out that there was plenty of money to be made, but snowboarding as sport came from the fringes of skiing (not from the center of the skiing industry). Snowboarding was real rebellion, not some contrived, premeditated alternative revenue stream.

There’s a reason why the biggest names in skiing aren’t the biggest names in snowboarding.

This is exactly what golf needs; true grassroots movements that can bring our fringe elements, whatever those are, into the mainstream. As with snowboarding, it needs to happen organically, not under the careful supervision of TaylorMade.

Golf’s Problems have Very Little to Do with Golf

“We have a cancer in our participation numbers…golfers aren’t having fun” – Joe Beditz

All of this Hack Golf stuff suggests that much of what’s wrong with golf (if anything actually is wrong with golf) is internal to the game itself. If you look at the ideas pouring into the Hack Golf website you’ll find plenty of the same comfy old hat.

Golf is elitist.

Golf takes too long.

Golf is too expensive.

All true to an extent, I suppose. Let’s assume something can be done to speed up play. I think there is. That’s the low hanging fruit.

The rest?

You think you can shift the mindset of the elitist golfer to be more welcoming of those coming out to the course to “Hack Golf”?

How many of you would actually welcome Foot Golf on your home course? I might be able to get on board with a secondary, 15” cup, but a soccer ball?

Fuck off.

While I can see how kicking a ball on a golf course might create a secondary revenue stream for the course owners, I don’t believe it’s going to actually grow the game of golf itself.

Here’s what I think golf’s biggest problem is: People just have other shit to do with their time.

What’s different now than it was during the golf boom?

Everything.

We have stadium seating in movie theatres (and in stadiums), traveling sports teams for our kids (soccer, baseball, hockey, and even lacrosse), high definition televisions, Xboxes, and the freaking Internet on our phones.

In the good ol’ days of the golf biz, phones had cords and the internet didn’t exist…and neither did lacrosse in any measurable capacity (those were the days).

Why spend $50 on greens fees when for 99 cents one can spend the next month tossing cartoon birds at cartoon blocks? I’ll take high score over double-bogey any day.

It wasn’t too long ago that that alternative to golf was a trip to the mall for some Orange Julius. Today a slew of real, actual alternatives exist.

Hack anything you want. You can’t change that.

Seriously, the bottom line is that golf has more competition than ever before, and much of what it’s up against is infinitely more family friendly and a hell of a lot less frustrating.

“If I wanted four hours of ritual humiliation I would have hired a dominatrix…and it would have been cheaper”. – Gary Hamel

At my house, Sunday is family day. Golf is not a family activity (not when you have a 3 year old). And here’s the shame of it, when she is older, my daughter’s passions will be things like gymnastics, and skating, and soccer, or some other activity that’s much more family (and toddler) friendly right now.

Golf’s window often closes before it ever opens.

If Hack Golf has a shot at making any real difference, I think it’s through making the game more accessible and desirable to families as a whole.

That’s my 2 cents.

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I’m Not Convinced We Actually Need to Grow Golf

Does golf need saving? Does the game actually need to grow?

Once again, it’s basically preposterous to think that because participation is on the decline, one day golf will cease to exist. The expression is that water finds its own level, and despite the ebb and flow of the last 2 decades, I don’t believe golf has found its plateau yet, but I’m certain there is one.

What is so horribly wrong with flat?

Oh I know…stagnation is bad too. It’s bad for golf companies who want to sell more products. It’s bad for the PGA of America whose members over-developed and over-reached when times were good. It’s most definitely bad for retailers struggling with declining margins and declining revenues, but is Hack Golf about saving the industry or is it about the golfer and the game?

Why not let golf be what it is. Let those of us who enjoy it do our thing, while those who don’t do theirs.

When I put some real thought into it I reached the conclusion that as golfers, there’s very little benefit for us in growing the game.

Sure…as somebody in the golf business, more golfers theoretically means more traffic to my website, and more revenue as a result, but as a golfer…

Growth comes with the threat of harder to get tee times, even slower play, and even greater frustration. Call me an elitist, but I don’t want guys kicking soccer balls or throwing Frisbees around the course while I’m trying to play real golf.

I know…that makes me part of the problem, and I’m basically good with that, because I know I’m far from alone, and I think there good ways to solve this problem that still involve using clubs and something very similar to the modern golf ball.

Do you think places like Pebble Beach, or even your local goat pasture are going to cut prices because of increased demand? Do you think Titleist is going to lower their prices on drivers because they’re selling too many of them?

While non-conforming clubs could benefit the golfer and grow the game, they won’t exist until somebody is sure they can make real money on them.

It’s simple supply and demand, and when supply exceeds demand, as is the case with the golf industry today, it’s actually the consumer (the golfer) who benefits.

Saving golf, growing golf…as much as anything, it’s about tipping the scales back in the industry’s favor. Sign me up for that…who’s with me?

As long as there’s enough foot traffic to keep the courses I want to play in business (and there is), I’m not going to concern myself too much with those who flew too close to the sun and are paying the consequences for it.

The golf bubble burst a while ago, and maybe the simple solution to all of our so-called problems is to accept it and move on.

The question we should be asking right now isn’t How can we grow golf?, it’s Why do we need to grow golf?

Bring me an answer completely devoid of financial motivation and I’ll get on board, but for now, I’m not feeling any pressing need to help Hack Golf.

Could Hack Golf Work?

for the love of golf

Despite my rants, I actually like Hack Golf…as a concept. I’d like to see it succeed, but if it’s going to work, TaylorMade, and the PGA of America and anybody else with a potential revenue stake in the outcome needs to stay as far away from it as possible.

Go away. Right now.

You gave us the platform, now step away and let the golfers (and non-golfers) run with it.

This isn’t about you, it can’t be. It has to be about us and the game.

The most genuine moment in Tuesday night’s event came during the Q&A Session when another member of the media asked Mark King what the first three rules of Hack Golf should be.

His response was very telling:

I don’t know…our thoughts are irrelevant”. – Mark King on the first 3 rules of Hack Golf

It’s not Mr. King’s question to answer, it’s yours. It’s going to take us a while to figure this thing out, so while Hack Golf ramps up, allow me to (not-so) humbly submit my first 3 rules of Hack Golf…3 rules I think should be prominently displayed at every golf course in the country.

Respect the course, move at a reasonable pace, and enjoy golf  – however you choose to play it.

Everything else is inconsequential.

What are your first 3 rules of Hack Golf?