Can Hack Golf save golf?
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Can Hack Golf save golf?

Ask someone what would make golf more enjoyable. You'll probably get a dozen, 20, 30 different answers.

Golf's too hard. It takes too long. It costs too much to play. It's very intimidating. Only old white guys play it. Exclusionary is a kind word to describe its culture to some outsiders.


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Fix all of those problems are golf can grow. The folks behind Hack Golf, a concept introduced on Tuesday night at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando by TaylorMade-adidas Golf CEO Mark King and supported by the National Golf Foundation and the PGA of America, namely its outspoken president Ted Bishop, are trying to identify those solutions -- and maybe even unearth the problems we collectively don't know persist. The presentation, which somewhat approximated a keynote Steve Jobs would have delivered, culminated in the introduction of this rather amorphous (on purpose) concept.

A website and social media campaign will essentially solicit ideas from golfers and non-golfers alike on how to improve the sport, making it more fun for existing players, encouraging lapsed players to pick the game back up and compel non-golfers to see the game in a new light. The cynic would say it's a sophisticated suggestion box. Nevertheless, that suggestion box will be opened by committed online workgroups which will identify winning and losing ideas, with the best ones a likely recipient of some seed money thrown in by TMaG, some $5 million over the next five years -- at least to start.

After hearing from King, Bishop and a pair of other speakers lay out the case for the sport's need to reinvent itself, it was still hard to walk away feeling completely energized. Golf's ills haven't been solved in the last 20 years, but it sure seems they've damn well been discussed to death. The issue seems to be putting the muscle behind trying to combat those problems with practical solutions, then disseminating these new-fangled best practices to the 16,000 golf facilities in this country.

Bishop gave a prime example, suggesting barely more than a third of those access points to the game offer the Get Golf Ready program, which his data says not only attracts players to learn the game because of its cutthroat price, but also retains them. An idea is only powerful if it leads to implementation. The money King has committed on behalf of his company, he hopes, will not only encourage experimentation but a genuine, concerted dialogue on what works.

King said Hack Golf is not about TaylorMade-adidas Golf, but, truth be told, it is right now. Other big-name organizations can nod their heads in agreement and support, but unless they match their tepid enthusiasm with tepid -- hopefully, enthusiastic -- investment, Hack Golf may merely be a Petri dish-sized initiative brought forth by the market leader in equipment.

Even if other big names in the sport buy in, the whole thing falls apart without the backing of golf course owners and operators.

Billy Casper Golf (full disclosure: my new employer if you haven't heard) is the largest golf course management company in the U.S., owning and/or operating some 160 properties. That's 1 percent of all of the courses in the U.S., meaning that for as remarkable of an opportunity exists for BCG to serve as a proving ground for the litany of ideas Hack Golf could produce, there's still 99 percent of courses to get on board.

Owners and operators will have to accept change in how they offer golf as a product and an experience. They will have to invent new variations, pricing, and repackage how the entire experience is pitched and framed. The culture and soul of the sport must change, too. Golf must be seen by the masses not as a half-day time-suck, but a briefer escape from the daily grind, a resort from the ordinary. The game needs to seem less staggering to try. Golf needs to not appear stodgy,  monolithic and an anachronistic activity.

To frame the problem more accurately, look at your television. Millions of Americans are unplugging their cable and satellite boxes from them. They're turning to streaming subscriptions, eschewing live TV for a total embrace of an on-demand entertainment culture. Planting your butt on a couch to watch TV might never go away, but it could become passe for a while. What spurs this mass disconnect, however, isn't the entertainment value of TV. It's arguably never been better. It's the conduit.

Ultimately, for golf, its biggest barrier to growth may well be the golf facility. We expect new players to venture into a strange, vast land, agree to pay lots of money to adopt our centuries-old traditions and assimilate into the culture. That thinking needs to change.

We can take golf to the masses:

Imagine walking into a 21st century country club, with multiple simulator bays, a great wine and beer selection, tasty food and an inviting atmosphere.

Envision urban golf fields, designed to be configured in a variety of ways so that, despite a lack of land, the course is always changing.

Stop by a Top Golf location when you get a chance to see just how fun a driving range can be.

Or we can transform the golf facility into an entertainment complex: a place to play golf, to watch the game and have a few beers with friends, to swim, to play with the kids, to have dinner, to enjoy being alive. For golf to thrive, it has to meekly offer an invitation to millions, hoping that open arms and a collective, open mind will draw them to the obsession we all share.

 

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