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Can 'hack' concept save golf?

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“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

- Linus Pauling, world-renowned chemist

ORLANDO, Fla. – Behind the bright lights and big words, ideas are what this night was all about.

Before a packed house on the eve of this year’s PGA Merchandise Show, TaylorMade Adidas Golf CEO Mark King unabashedly announced that the answer to golf’s dwindling participation numbers rests among the collective and not the caverns of power that have for years tried, and largely failed, to stem the ebbing tide.

First, King – with the aid of National Golf Foundation CEO and statistician Joe Beditz – outlined the stark reality. Golf has lost an estimated 5 million players in the last decade. Even more concerning, 25 percent of the game’s core golfers have made their way to the exit.

“We’re leaking golfers,” Beditz announced to a crowd of mostly PGA professionals and golf course operators.

And like any good intervention, King – never one to shy away from a fight – offered the ultimate haymaker to any in the old guard who wish to cling to the last stages of denial.

“Our great game has been in a state of decline and a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge that,” King said.

The issue, as Beditz crunched it, is partly perception, partly relevance. “Research says they are just not having fun,” he said.

While “fun” may be a buzz word on Beditz’s surveys, it seems cost, time and degree of difficulty also factor into the game’s diminishing participation numbers, but now doesn’t seem like the time to get caught up in semantics.



Besides, as King sees it the “why” is not as relevant as what it will take to improve golf’s appeal to a wider audience, which is where Gary Hamel, who was recently called the world’s most influential business thinker by the Wall Street Journal, joins the conversation.

Hamel talks fast, eschews ambiguity for the frontal assault and views golf’s participation problem no different than if the game were a Fortune 500 company with a creativity issue.

“We have to listen to the canaries in the coal mine,” Hamel said.

To do that Hamel has been picked to help spearhead a new grow-the-game initiative called “Hack Golf.” King admits he’s not crazy about the name, but the concept is revolutionary.

Much like the tech companies that had hit innovation walls in the early 2000s, Hamel contends golf is ripe for crowd sourcing, or, as he explains, extended online brainstorming sessions.

“We need hundreds of mind-flipping ideas, not dozens,” he said.

Whereas golf “think tanks” have historically consisted of industry insiders who seem to have been mired in the flawed participation models of the past, Hack Golf will attempt to collect ideas from every corner of the golf universe and beyond.

Via the initiative’s web site, HackGolf.org, and Twitter, @HackGolfOrg, King & Co. plan to take the best ideas and put them in play with a surprisingly specific plan.

Until April, which organizers are calling the beta phase, Hack Golf will cherry-pick the very best ideas, with no constraints from equipment and format changes to new technology and rules.

We have seen these types of “game-changing” initiatives before. From Golf 20/20 to Get Golf Ready to Golf 2.0, the industry has tried and largely failed, if Beditz’s numbers are to be believed, to stem the steady participation declines.

For his part, King has committed up to $5 million in funding for whatever ideas, or “hacks,” the concept produces and has dedicated an entire team of TaylorMade employees to lead the collection of data and implementation of ideas.

In fact, King seemed to begin the dialogue with his suggestion on Tuesday that golf’s current “pyramid of influence” should be redefined, with the PGA of America assuming the top spot over the U.S. Golf Association, PGA Tour and Royal & Ancient because, he points out, PGA professionals will ultimately decide if the game is able to break free of its current participation malaise.

This will ultimately come down to a confrontation between tradition and innovation. Breaking down preconceived notions that were centuries in the making is no easy task and this kind of outside-of-the-box thinking has not exactly been embraced by golf’s power brokers.

King, however, is convinced it is the only path forward.

“They are not mutually exclusive; tradition and innovation can coexist,” Hamel said.

Only time will tell if the old game can survive a new makeover, but as Pauling figured out long ago there is only one way to assure the creation of a good idea.