Could a 15-inch hole be the answer to golf’s growth problem? TaylorMade CEO Mark King says it’s time to find out

April 16, 2014

Bobby Jones once suggested that the most important distance in this bedeviling game is the space between your ears.

But maybe the measurement that really matters is the diameter of the hole.

The thought occurred to me early this week as I surveyed a birdie putt at the Oconee Course at Reynolds Plantation outside Atlanta. You know that feeling when you’re studying a 10-foot, downhill slider, flooded with the certainty that you’re going to drain it? Me neither. At least not until recently, and I suppose I had Mark King to thank.

The CEO of TaylorMade Golf, King has gained a name as a Copernican thinker, a challenger to golf’s conventional ways. He was also the driving force behind the 15-Inch Cup, the inaugural event I played in Monday where the tees were up, the pins were placed in welcoming positions and the holes all looked as big as buckets because, well, they were.

Mention 15-inch cups to a self-proclaimed golf purist, and their upper lip will quiver as their knickers bunch.

“My forebears aimed at four-and-a-quarter-inch holes,” they’ll harrumph. “So it was, and so it shall ever be!”

Which, of course, is pretty much King’s point. With all due respect to golf’s timeworn traditions, the game remains so wedded to its established views that its guardians are blinded to the need for change. As a consequence, golf has become like the prostates of many of those who play it: it has a growing problem.

Participation is dwindling, down nearly 20 percent in this country over the last 10 years alone. While others have noted this troubling trend, King has taken outsize steps to reverse it.

Earlier this year, at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, he announced the launch of Hack Golf, a TaylorMade-sponsored initiative that is, at heart, a worldwide call for fresh ideas. Over the next five years, operating in alliance with the PGA of America, King plans to pump $5 million of his company’s money into what amounts to a global brainstorm session.

Hack Golf puts the question out there: how do we make the game more inviting, more fun?

“Let’s face it,” King said. “For too long we’ve had the same people, industry people like me, looking at the same problems and coming up with the same solutions. It’s time to open ourselves to new ideas.”

One idea that resonates with King is to set up venues with holes nearly four-times the size of what we’re used to — not as a replacement for golf-as-we-know it, but as an entertaining supplement to the game.

“It’s not meant to be disrespectful of the traditions,” King said. “Like moving to the forward tees, it’s meant to take away the intimidation factor.”

In that regard, the 15-Inch Cup was staged at an apt time, one day after the close of the Masters. And TaylorMade brought out the big guns to promote it; Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia joined the Oconee outing. Fresh off a "Tradition Unlike Any Other," here they were at an event unlike any they had ever seen.

“Based on their finishes this past weekend,” King said playfully before the opening tee shots, “maybe they need the 15-inch cup.”

Maybe so, but the enlarged hole isn’t meant for elite players. It’s aimed at juniors, newbies and assorted would-be golfers, those untold legions who steer clear of the game because they think that it’s too stuffy, too difficult, too boring, and the many more who have given up playing out of sheer frustration. Advocates of the 15-inch cup say that because it speeds up play and lowers scores (test-runs show that it shaves 10 strokes from the average golfer’s tally) it also has a place at easy-going tournaments and company outings.

Behold the jumbo hole: a cure for the three-putt, an antidote to the five-hour round. But will it take? Mark King has big ambitions for it.

Over the next two weeks, TaylorMade plans to dole out 15-inch cup “kits” (replete with holes, tee markers, flags and flagsticks) to 20 courses around the country, part of a beta program that, the company says, should expand to another 80 facilities by the end of May.

Five years from now, King told me, he expects the idea to spread to 90 percent of golf courses in the United States.

Hey, a guy can dream, but in the meantime, whatever happens, I’ll always have Oconee.

That opening birdie effort? It caught the edge and dropped. Four routine pars followed, and then a chip-in from the fringe. No, it wasn’t Augusta. And it wasn’t golf as I’d always want to play it. But it was free-wheeling, ego-boosting and a lot of fun.

By my ninth and final hole, consecutive bogeys had dropped me back to even (there’s still that pesky challenge of all the other shots) but I reached that final green in regulation, left with a 15 foot sidewinder for birdie. I glanced at my partner. He refused to concede it.

Not that it mattered. We both knew that it was good.