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The Loop

Can Hack Golf help what ails the game?

January 22, 2014
ORLANDO -- Where is the new great idea to grow the game of golf? Is it out there somewhere and nobody knows it?

With the launch of Hack Golf at the PGA Merchandise Show, TaylorMade Golf CEO Mark King hopes to find it by reaching outside the traditional confines of the golf-industry hierarchy. Working in conjunction with Gary Hamel, a noted business-leadership strategist, King has launched the website to solicit advice from golfers -- and more importantly, non-golfers -- that "hacks" the sport in order to identify ways to reinvent it and make the game more fun.

During a splashy 90-minute presentation Jan. 21 at the Rosen Centre Hotel, King lamented that golf's major stakeholders have yet to produce effective efforts at retaining current golfers or enticing a generation of new players to take up the game. Acknowledging the good intentions of programs such as The First Tee, Play it Forward and Get Golf Ready, King bemoaned that they all "promote the same experiences that aren't attracting new players."

Statistics seem to back him up. According to Joe Beditz, CEO of the National Golf Foundation who was a speaker at Hack Golf event, the sport has lost 5 million participants during the last decade. Moreover, the number of "core" golfers has declined to 24 percent of the overall golf community while participation from golfers age 18-34 dropped by 30 percent.

"We have to do something about it," King said. "We have to change the experience." attempts to capitalize on the business strategy of "open-source innovation," where suggestions from anyone and everyone are aggregated in an attempt to sift through ideas and foster new thinking. "We need to hear from those on the fringe of golf," Hamel said. "We need thousands, not dozens, of minds flipping ideas."

Whether such group-think will lead to effective answers to golf's stagnant participation is unclear, even to Hack Golf's organizers. King is aware the initiative isn't likely to generate any paradigm-shifting ideas that will work for all courses around the country. The hope, though, is that it can foster several smaller ideas that could eventually be implemented at local or regional levels.

For even the smaller ideas to succeed, leaders within the golf industry have to have some buy-in with the process. This, too, is no guarantee. Representatives at other equipment manufactures might privately question whether the Hack Golf initiative was anything more than a marketing ploy by a rival club company.

At least one leading golf association seems to like the potential in Hack Golf. PGA of America president Ted Bishop was also a speaker at the launch event and expressed his support for the crowd-sourcing concept as a worthwhile alternative to help the game. Bishop candidly admitted even seemingly smart PGA of America-led programs haven't managed to curb the decline in golfers. "We really haven't moved the needle, as good as some of those programs are," Bishop said.

Buy-in will also need to come in the financial variety, so that the ideas generated from the initiative that collectively are considered to have merit can be put into place. To that end, King has pledged $5 million over five years from TaylorMade to help fund the initiative and some of the possible programs it will generate.

"We're not expecting any return on investment," King said.

Instead, he's making a bet that the next great idea to help grow the game really is out there. Now it's just time to find it.