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If You Build It, They Will Come

Grass League founders explain the humble origins of the par-3 night-golf league you didn’t know you needed

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Maybe you think golf needs another league like a Pro V1 to the head. As the pro-golf schism has pressed into its third year, the furor has turned to fatigue, TV ratings plummeting faster than LIV pros’ OWGR rankings. Meanwhile, TGL remains a 3D rendering on the simulator horizon line as its biggest benefactors struggle on the actual golf course. It’s not a stretch to say that competitive golf needs a hard reset, and that may come from an unlikely source:

A little par-3 muny in Tempe by the name of Rolling Hills.

That’s where the inaugural Grass League showdown is set to go down this week, ushering in a brand of televised golf we promise you have never seen before. Hosted under the lights in prime time, the two-man scramble league features few recognizable names, opting instead for Roy McAvoy-style heroes from across North America. It will anoint no individual winners, heaping all the glory on franchise-style teams. Oh, and if you thought 54 holes wasn’t enough, Grass League has trimmed things to 36 and wants viewers to tune in hole-by-hole as if it were a game of high-stakes poker.

Convinced? Curious? Downright confused?

Don’t worry, we sat down with two of the five friends who formed Grass Clippings—a grassroots golf brand with a mission to give back to greenskeepers—and hatched the so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea for Grass League to help explain what it is, how it works and where it’s going.

So obviously we’re talking about Grass League today, which is super exciting, but this journey didn’t start with Grass League. It began with Grass Clippings. Tell me a little bit about how you guys came to start Grass Clippings and how the ethos behind that led from us there to here.

Jake Hoselton: We are five golfers all from one of the biggest golf markets in the world and being the age we were when Grass Clippings got started, our late twenties, we were pretty in tune with all of the golf brands out there. But nothing spoke to us in any significant way. What pushed us over the edge was our passion to tell the story of a golf brand through the lens of a greenskeeper. If there was anyone at the golf course that we saw eye to eye with most—or wanted to have a beer with most—it was the greenskeepers.

Not that we don't love everyone down at our course but there just wasn't really anything in the market that honored and championed the art of greenskeeping. As we dug a little bit more, we found out that these personas were so cool and interesting—that everyone was very humble and like-minded and in it not for the money, but for the passion and the art and the beauty and the nature and all of those things.

I feel like every golfer dreams of having their own golf brand. We knew we loved the name Grass Clippings because it was all of those things, but we didn't attach the story of the greenskeeper to it until many years after. That’s what really fueled the passion and the vision and the branding and the messaging. It was like “wherever this path leads us, let's not forget that the North Star of all brands, leagues, anything in the world of Grass Clippings is the greenskeeper.” That’s what brings it back to the core of the game.

A lot of golf brands are focused on shotgunning beers or being Instagram brands. Like, that’s not us. What's also not us, is being super preppy—the traditional stereotype of golf. We’re more like board sports, fishermen, hunting people. So that was on brand with the greenskeeper as well. We're all competitive golfers. We love gambling on the golf course. We go play amateur events all around the country. We compete but we don’t necessarily want to be a “Bogey Boy” or whatever.

So we started the Grass Clippings Open with the launch of the brand. That brought the casualness of par-3 golf and team-based golf onto a competitive, high-stakes platform. You see all these member-guests and the member-members and there's fights and all this stuff and you don't know who's winning or how they're winning, so we wanted something very defined. The Grass Clippings Open was a two-person scramble. It was casual, fun. There was loud music, but it was high stakes and competitive at the same time. Par-3 golf and the team format really catered to both of those things.

After we held that first Grass Clippings Open where we preached fun with a great sense of competition, P.J. Koenig, who played in the event, wrote a great article about how casual it was but how much pressure he felt when while playing in the tournament. That’s when we knew we wanted to grow this format of golf; to open up Pandora's Box of what par-3 golf as a standalone sport could be.

The Monday morning after, Pete Wilson [Grass Clippings Chief of Marketing] goes, “if we want to take this to where we want it to go, we need our own venue. We need to play under the lights and we need to control everything from start to finish.” So that's when we got the idea to go chase down our own golf course that we knew we could light, where we knew we could make noise, but also that we could position as the home of competitive par-3 golf as a standalone sport.

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Pete Wilson: When you think about the history of golf, if I were to ask you, what are the 10 best golf shots ever hit in the history of golf? You might not mention one drive. So many of the moments come down to a putt, a chip, a 150-yard shot. In all reality, the exciting moments of golf happen right there.

Every golfer thinks they want to hit a driver. It's just like, “oh yeah, have to hit my driver today.” Why? You know? What we found was the community created around par-3 golf was very fun, competitive and inviting.

JH: At the same time through our formative years Jimmy [Jake’s older brother Jimmy Hoselton and one of the five founding members] was playing professional golf. He was that plus-5 handicap that was on a $30,000-per-year travel budget, staying in shitty hotels. If he played well, he’d walk away with like $2,000 but his costs would be like $5,000.

We had always gone and played amateur events—like we would go to Minnesota and The Resorters every year. And there was so much opportunity that we saw in the talent pool in both early-stage professional golfers and amateur golfers as well. And then you also had the rise of NIL. In these small towns, there's literally amateur golfers that are celebrities, that go for $20,000 or $30,000 in the Calcutta. We thought, “these are characters that should be known in golf.”

We want to present a stage where someone who's already deep into their career but is still a very competitive amateur golfer—or someone who played at the pro level but got their amateur status back—can still be relevant in golf. Or with our pro events, we want to fix how narrow an opportunity it is to make it in the game.

We sponsor four young-gun 25-year-old golfers and just watching them and seeing how tiny the window of opportunity is and how difficult it is, makes us want to position Grass League as a new product in competitive golf that maybe appeals to a kid fresh out of college. Maybe they say, “Maybe I don't turn pro for four years and I go secure some NIL opportunities and I go play in Grass League and I make money. I gain credibility. Maybe I'm playing in my Mondays and I try to get status and then I make more of a sound decision to go from amateur to pro rather than these guys who turn pro because they accepted a $2,000 check with $5,000 cost.”

So essentially Grass League is the Grass Clippings Open all grown up. It’s the next step in that evolution. But this week is just the start. The plan is to do two events this year, right?

JH: Yeah, the April event, that's amateur-amateur, and then a pro-pro event later in the year [dates TBD].

Then we have to think about 2025 and say, OK, let’s do an am-am, let's do a pro-am, let's do a pro-pro. Then let's maybe do a ladies event or a senior event. Or whatever we collectively think keeps the product fresh.

But the idea is to build out these team in their respective markets—we have Phoenix, Los Angeles, Canada, and so forth. The idea is for these teams to have a roster of players that they can pull from for whatever the event calls for.

Obviously the whole point of this that we’re NOT talking about Scottie Scheffler here. So who will be playing? How are the teams constructed?

PW: This is where it’s important to explain our ownership model. The approach of putting out celebrities just to play when the celebrities typically aren't that good at golf, in our mind, isn't a good product. We still want, like Jake has been saying, the most competitive golf. So we are approaching celebrity golfers and those with connections and social media followings to be team owners. That way you still get that star power and then they go out and they're like, “I want to find the best amateur golfers.”

They're all going to look at it differently. It's just like, the Phoenix Suns might go get a point guard instead of a center. This is the same type of thing, which is very unique in golf. There’s some decisions to be made. Just because you won the Arizona amateur doesn't mean you're on the Arizona team. As Herb Brooks used to say, “I'm not looking for the best ones, I’m looking for the right ones.”

So there's this really cool component of being an owner and having this connection with your players. But to answer your question from the perspective of talent, it's going to be natural selection. These guys are just going to choose the best golfer. Some may have a social media following. Some guy might just be in West Texas hitting off a dirt range, but he's the next ‘Tin Cup.’ So it's just all over the map and we want to explore that. We’re not interested in getting into the rules of like “you can't play in this event, you can play in this event.” You're seeing it play out with the PGA Tour and LIV Tour right now. Our answer is, if you can make it, we'd love to have you.

So what competition format will you be using?

JH: We're focused on the two-person scramble. What we've tested and seen is that it produces great shots. It produces long putts being made and birdies rather than sort of grinding over pars and bogeys. It's basically just a giant birdie barrage, which is fun.

PW: The other thing is that it creates the team camaraderie. There's been this real push to create team golf, but it's really tough. If you follow [former Golf Digest and current Barstool Golf writer] Dan Rapaport on Twitter, he always writes about it. The LIV Tour tries to do this team golf thing, but it's become a sideshow, a distraction, because there's an individual winner.

It’s the same with college golf. A player might win the individual but if he got fifth place with Arizona State, as a fan I’m like, “what am I watching?” You know, when the Phoenix Suns play the Lakers, it's not like Kevin Durant gets a trophy for having the most points that game. He's a winner or a loser.

So when you really boil it down to a two-man scramble, it becomes a team sport and that's the singular focus. We have no interest in having an individual winner. That’s what really creates the team golf aspect.

I’ve seen the term “high stakes” used a lot when describing Grass League. Talk to me a little bit about the purses and betting involved.

JH: We're collectively interested in finding ways to make it like the World Series of Poker, where you can tune in for five or ten minutes and watch one hand and still get a beginning-to-end story. [ed. note – Bleacher Report will live stream the $1 million ace pot on the 18th hole on Saturday 4/20]

So we want to have a high-stakes hole-in-one pots on various holes. I think it would be awesome to find ways for the teams to go head-to-head and bet against each other for side action, especially where it's like, “we have a Phoenix and Scottsdale team, we're going to create a rivalry between the two.” If we know they’re playing in the first round for $10,000 straight up, that’s a good side story to follow along. We’re interested in activating as many gambling components as possible.

PW: As with everything with our company, everything kind of happens naturally. People have been asking us about the gambling part and the way we look at it is like, it's going to happen naturally.

If you look at the Good Good event [Grass Clippings Rolling Hills hosted the Good Good Desert Open back in February], there's a ton of comments on people being like, “Hey, how do I throw my mortgage on Grant Horvat? How do I bet on Michael Block? Where, where do I go to bet?” So those questions are naturally coming and as our league grows so will the demand for DraftKings, FanDuel, any of these companies, to help us create a product.

All the side action, all that stuff, we don't wat to come out the gates trying to offer too much. We know that stuff will come.

Going back to the greenskeeper thing. All roads lead back to that for you guys and I know Grass Clippings has given back charitably to greenskeepers for years. Will Grass League do the same?

JH: We are on the verge of landing our partnership with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. So we'll most likely affiliate with the GCSAA as our 501(c)(3) partner and we want that to be the charitable component of Grass League.

PW: It’s also worth mentioning too that we also hired the head greenskeeper from TPC Scottsdale, Scott Hebert, to come down to our par-3 course, which is awesome.

Finally, looking ahead to your long-term vision and plans, do you see this growing into more events? Do you see yourselves expanding, looking for other courses like Rolling Hills around the country?

JH: We are actively expanding our real estate portfolio right now. We intend on taking this on the road. We're not the only ones building lighted par-3 courses right now. We're talking to potential team owners that have affiliations or connections to other par-3 courses in their respective markets. So our ideas for this—in its full breadth—land it in the category of a giant Ryder Cup. I don't know if we want to make that assimilation, but the idea is to have a full season of stops, eight or more. If it's like wildfire, let's keep doing it.

But these teams are going to represent markets across the country. If you're a golfer in Minnesota or Michigan or Tampa Bay or whatever, we want it to be a complete honor and dream to play on the Canadian Hat Tricks or the Minnesota Muskies, right? Just like it's a dream to play on the Phoenix Suns, right?

PW: I think it’s important to add, as we take it on the road, not only is it par-3 golf, not only is it this team concept that in our minds works to where, like Jake said, golfers from Minnesota aspire to play for the Minnesota Muskies, but it’s live golf at night in prime time, which has never really been done before. Imagine watching a PGA Tour event on a Saturday afternoon. I'm a busy guy. I have three kids. I have responsibilities. But if I drive home on a Thursday night from work and there's live, lit par-3 golf on television, airing on the right night when we're not competing with the NFL, you have my attention.

We think it’s really unique. We hope we can broadcast something that's very intriguing, new and novel at a time that isn’t competing with any other golf.

JH: The one other thing I really want to hammer home is that Grass League is segmenting par-3 golf off as a standalone sport—a new product and a new opportunity for a new demographic of golfer.

PW: When you think about it, anybody can play. If Jon Rahm shows up to a Grass League event, and I'm standing on the first tee and we're both holding a pitching wedge, at the end of the day, I still think I could hit it closer. It levels the playing field. That’s the really inspiring part of it.

JH: We want the team owners to look at it as an investment. Like, “I'm going to have this player on my roster for two years. I'm investing in this player, and I'm going to field them in these tournaments.” It's still going to be very difficult to get a spot on a roster like that, but if I'm managing a team in the pro event, like Pete said, and there’s Jon Rahm and Freddie Couples on a team, I'm not really scared of putting these two young guns that have never played in a PGA Tour event up against those guys. I think they could easily beat them, you know?

PW: That's compelling. That's so compelling.

Stream Grass League live on Bleacher Report, Saturday, April 20th, 6 p.m. - 9 p.m. ET