Representatives from the golf and business industries last week unveiled HackGolf.org, an initiative designed to address the calamity of the sport’s rapidly diminishing number of participants. The sport has lost five million players in the U.S. over the past decade, according to the National Golf Foundation, including a 30% drop in golfers age 18-34. Since conventional ideas—such as encouraging faster play through a television ad campaign and youth programs such as The First Tee—have done little to halt the decline of golf in America, Hack Golf aims to crowdsource random and radical ideas as a way of thinking outside the tee box. GPS nanotechnology on golf balls, for example, would certainly make finding them easier.
In the keynote presentation at the 2014 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Hack Golf founders Mark King, CEO of TaylorMade Golf, and associates Joe Beditz, CEO of the National Golf Foundation and business strategist Gary Hamel, asked what the industry can do to make golf more fun. They’re asking the wrong question, because whoever said golf was supposed to be fun?
Is learning the violin fun? Is becoming a competitive chess player fun? Minigolf, with its colored balls and Ferris wheels, is fun. But the satisfaction derived from real golf is much more profound than the word “fun” would suggest. Golf is something like rock climbing, except the risk is not a shattered back but a bruised ego.
It’s for those who, however laid back they might otherwise be, have an alpha streak that keeps them impervious to the ritual humiliation the sport inflicts. Golf is beyond fun: It is the ultimate sporting test of physical coordination, mental focus, strategy and nerves. “It takes a special kind of person to play golf,” an instructor at Golf Manhattan once told me, since for those who take it up later in life, “it’s just too hard.”
Golf will always be an elite sport, but not in the old-fashioned way of country-club expense and exclusivity. Municipal courses are affordable on even a modest income, and cheap clubs are easily found on eBay. Those willing to wade through conflicting teaching methodologies will find a lifetime supply of free instruction on YouTube.
Today’s golf elitism comes down more to individual temperament, and part of that is shaped by the age in which we live. Technology has made acquiring equipment and absorbing information easier than ever. But it may also have eroded our collective willingness to take up long-term challenges, since, for some, learning golf will be the equivalent of enrolling in 10 years of medical school. Is golf hard? Damn hard, but today’s taskmaster is more likely Father Time than Old Man Par.
During the presentation, Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America, wondered how to deliver 30-, 60- or 90-minute golf experiences to consumers—however much time they’re willing to carve out between texting, Facebooking and watching movies on their phone—yet admitted that golf doesn’t currently offer such a product. A slow round of golf is asking a lot of today’s young people, whose idea of fun is probably not six hours of painstaking frustration. The ancient game of golf (the modern game goes back to 15th-century Scotland) may simply be incompatible with 21st-century lifestyles, in which case the fault lies not in the sport, but in ourselves. The golf gods are cruel, and to ask the game to meet us on our terms rather than us on the game’s terms could bring about divine retribution through a nationwide plague of lipped-out putts.
In my case, however, it was technology that introduced me to golf. At age 41 I hit my first ball on the high-tech simulator at Brooks Brothers in midtown Manhattan and was instantly hooked—or rather sliced. To get young people involved, perhaps simulators, with their video-game-like interaction, could be installed in high-school gyms along with practice mats and nets. The train-’em-young-and-indoors approach is certainly working in Korea. Adolescents are also less self-conscious about learning physical movements than middle-aged adults, and are already in the mode of studying challenges like trigonometry and foreign languages.
As for those over 34, there’s a quote I can’t find—something ubermenschy and from someone like Nietzsche or Baudelaire—about “superior beings” deriving pleasure from things that are difficult and challenging. Perhaps the National Golf Foundation needs to sponsor a “Have you got what it takes?” campaign aimed at Type-A overachievers. Using Armed Forces recruitment strategies makes more sense to me than sugarcoating the challenge of golf with a fabricated fun factor. “If you think golf is relaxing,” Bob Hope once said, “you’re not playing it right.”