Have an idea to improve the game? Hack Golf wants to hear it

February 4, 2014

Mark King admits he’s been part of the problem. As the CEO of TaylorMade Golf he’s been an industry insider for the last two decades, and with insiders leading the game some estimates have golf hemorrhaging participants at a rate of approximately 500,000 to a million people a year.

“People who play golf once a year, they still play once a year,” King says. “But the people who play all the time, that’s who we’re losing. And the even bigger number is in the 18-34 demographic, where participation has declined by 30 percent. That means we don’t have kids coming out of high school and college playing golf. If that trend continues, fast forward twenty years when all the Baby Boomers are extinct, who’s going to play golf?”

All of which explains the need for Hack Golf, the crowd-sourcing initiative launched by King and noted business guru Gary Hamel. The idea is this: Golf’s usual suspects have had their say with the inception of The First Tee and the USGA’s new “While We’re Young” campaign, plus other ideas to improve the game. And yet they haven’t stopped the mass exodus. If the game is to survive, King says, it will have to decentralize its crisis response, sending the problem out to the people to provide solutions.

Over the last week, the public has been able to log onto hackgolf.org to give their input on how to fix the game. Thousands have done so, offering all manner of solutions — from the mundane (ready golf) to the mathematical (divide 18-hole courses into three 6-hole courses) to the weird (free beer).

Almost everyone agrees there’s a problem.

“Golf is in a tenuous situation right now with the current socio-economic climate,” Gary McCord told Golf Magazine in a recent interview. “I’m at the rear end of the Baby Boomers. We supported all these clubs, and there’s nobody there now to tap us on the shoulder and take over our memberships because the game is too expensive, it takes too long to play, it’s too hard — people can’t invest that much energy into something that’s not going to give them that much in return. So how do you fill all these clubs that are being depleted? That is a real problem.”

Innovators are looking hard for the solutions, and in some case finding them.

An article on Forbes.com last January highlighted TGA (Teach, Grow, Achieve) Premier Junior Golf, launched by Joshua Jacobs in 2003. The idea, which has taken root in parts of the country, is to make golf a sort of after-school enrichment program, with parents paying a modest fee to give their kids something productive and fun to do between the time school gets out and the time Mom and Dad knock off work and pick them up.

The Wall Street Journal last August highlighted Island Hills Golf Club in Centreville, Mich., where would-be golfers can use premium clubs and even get a quick lesson at no charge. Families can play free at off-peak hours, and golfers in a hurry can opt for the signature Island Hills innovation: five-, seven-, nine- or 12-hole “Quik Courses.”

What these ideas have in common is they embrace one of TaylorMade CEO King’s favorite concepts: disruption. “If we’re going to have a thriving industry,” King says, “we’re going to have to disrupt almost every kind of, to use Gary Hamel’s word, orthodoxy or the status quo. I’ve been a part of the industry for 34 years. I am not excusing myself from any other industry leader who has had an opportunity shape the way the game is presented to the public. And that’s the actual issue — not the game itself.

“It’s been about expensive housing developments,” King continues, “with Greg Norman or Gary Player or Tom Fazio or Jack Nicklaus as the architect, and how hard can we make the course, how much undulation can we put in the greens. So people can say, ‘My course is a Nicklaus course.’ That’s not very inviting for women or seniors or juniors. So we have to disrupt that. There’s no one initiative that’s going to change the game.

“In my time here,” he adds, “it seems like the industry, all of its focus is on the execution, the actual playing of the game. Get Golf Ready is about playing better, swinging better, when in fact I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue is the environment that we put around the game of golf. That’s the thing we have to innovate on: How do we make sure people feel welcomed? As opposed to, ‘Gosh, that’s the hardest game. I don’t see myself doing that again.’ That’s the feedback you get from first-time golfers.”

If King is known for any one idea, it is the idea to enlarge the cup to a diameter of 15 inches, or about the size of a small pizza. He’s played a lot with such a hole, and it’s a perfect visual — so jarringly different as to illustrate exactly how much he’s willing to disrupt the status quo.

“Most 100-shooters three- or four-putt every green,” he says. “That’s my only point about the cup. Just as an entry point to the game, if you could cut all those strokes in half, all the sudden a 100-shooter goes from 100 to 80. That’s pretty exciting! Plus we know that if you were to cut down on half of the putts the game speeds up a lot. We have one on the driving range here. I go out there every day and try to hole out my 60-yard wedge shot.”

And yet he’s the first to admit the giant hole is not going to save golf. What will? That’s the big unknown. The PGA of America, the World Golf Hall of Fame, owner-operators, media outlets and others have expressed a desire to be part of the solution, but how it all plays out remains to be seen. For now TaylorMade is hosting the Hack Golf site, which on its homepage features pictures of King and Hamel, plus the relevant definition of hack: “verb — To improve something new and highly effective.” But that probably won’t last forever. King isn’t going to ride in on his white horse, with his white driver, and bring back lost jobs and revive an entire sport.

“We’re going to put together a group to see who’s willing to fund this,” he says, “because right now we’re funding it by ourselves. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we’re going to get together and see how it can work going forward because I don’t want it to be mine.

“Crowd-sourcing is putting an idea out there for people to say yes or no to it. We don’t want a panel of eight guys saying, ‘Okay, let’s do this one,’ because that to me is the same old thing. We’re going to have Natalie Gulbis go on Hack Golf and say, ‘Hey out there, does your significant other play golf? If not, what would it take for her to play?’ Or, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, does your kid play? What would it take to get him or her playing?’”

Think hard, because it’s up to you. It’s up to all of us.

Watch: Mark King introduces Hack Golf: