One game, two sets of rules?

Editor’s note: This column appeared in the Feb. 4 issue of Golfweek.

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If we let golfers tee up every shot, swing clubs with “trampoline-powered” faces, toss their golf balls out of bunkers and putt into 15-inch cups, would golf still be golf?

And would it matter?

What may seem like ridiculous, if not preposterous, questions were asked in earnest by the game’s major stakeholders at the PGA Merchandise Show.

But like a calm ocean with a roiling undercurrent, the industry’s largest trade expo – aside from its usual fare of new equipment and apparel – provided a setting for revolutionary thinking.

Foremost among golf’s revered principles is one set of rules for all; it’s the common bond that makes the game a shared experience, regardless of player ability. But all too often that experience is a daunting one for too many who play the game, says Mark King, president and CEO of TaylorMade-Adidas Golf. Though he long has supported the status quo, King says the game’s deteriorating health has made him a rebel leader. He’s lobbying for an alternative set of rules to make the game easier for beginners and recreational players.

photo

Scott McNealy

“We are not getting new people to come into the game. If we’re going to change their behavior, it’s going to have to feel like it’s completely radical,” King said. “Even when we do attract new golfers, they leave within a year. Do you know why? It’s not because it takes too much time. It’s not because it’s too expensive. It’s because it’s no fun.”

At the root of King’s frustration is the financial support the equipment community has contributed to various grow-the-game initiatives, which, he says, have produced underwhelming results.

“Golf 20/20, Play Golf America, The First Tee – all of these things that were supposed to grow the game – none of them have worked,” King said. “Golf courses are closing at an unprecedented rate. Less people are playing.”

King says the U.S. Golf Association should maintain the current rules for tour professionals and other serious golfers who want to abide by them, but he’s imploring the governing body to establish easier rules for everyone else. He also is calling for the game’s influential stars to endorse the alternative rules so recreational players will embrace them as legitimate.

Said King: “Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have to say, ‘This is real golf. It’s not funny golf; it isn’t weirdo golf.’

“And the PGA of America has to execute it. All of the PGA golf professionals who are here have to say,‘What’s your handicap? 22. Great. We’re going to use the 15-inch cup and the yellow tees, which are way up there.’ ”

PGA of America leaders acknowledge the game is struggling, but clearly they’re not ready to move that fast. During the PGA Show, they announced they have hired the Boston Consulting Group to study the game’s ills and help devise a plan for growth. During the past five years, the number of U.S. golfers has declined nearly 10 percent. PGA officials say that isn’t catastrophic – especially during a recession – but rather reflects golf’s resiliency. However, one wonders: If real change were implemented, could such losses be replaced with gains?

Many industry leaders are concerned the game’s leading organizations are too entrenched in tradition to address participation woes.

“It may be solved by some entrepreneurial effort that happens outside the industry that is strong enough to create a ‘Golf 2.0’ experience of some sort that attracts a whole new demographic,” said Nike Golf president Cindy Davis.

Enter Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems and an avid golfer. McNealy easily could be mistaken for a member of the golf establishment. After all, at one time, he belonged to as many private clubs as he had golf clubs in his bag.

But McNealy can’t understand what he describes as golf’s blind adherence to rules. At the PGA Show, he launched the Alternative Golf Association, which is advocating a game called “flogton” (“not golf” spelled backward). The AGA still is in a conceptual phase, but it will promote a version of golf that permits equipment that allows faster and easier play. For example, AGA “commissioner” McNealy can’t imagine why the AGA wouldn’t approve golf balls embedded with microchips so they can be found when they’re in the woods.

McNealy insists he’s not trying to overthrow the USGA; he applauds the association. He just can’t understand why golf and flogton couldn’t co-exist. McNealy says flogton can do for golf what snowboarding did for skiing. Even when the latter was suffering a steep participation slide, traditional skiers detested snowboarders as renegades who recklessly jumped and weaved among them. But snowboarders soon gained acceptance and rejuvenated ski resorts.

“There’s a tremendous vacuum for a different way to play,” McNealy said.

“Golf 2.0” is a game with which we are not familiar, true. But its time has come.

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