TaylorMade's King gives golf a pathway to grow

TaylorMade chief executive Mark King (from left), noted business adviser Gary Hamel, National Golf Foundation chief executive Joe Beditz and PGA of America president Ted Bishop announce the Hack Golf effort to grow the game, coinciding with the 2014 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla.

In 1965, Gary Player won the U.S. Open at Bellerive Country Club and in a remarkable gesture donated his $25,000 first-place check to charity. He earmarked $20,000 to junior golf and $5,000 to the American Cancer Society, leading Tour pro Bob Rosburg to famously crack: “Does that mean Gary thinks growing the game is four times more difficult than curing cancer?”

All kidding aside, golf today is in a crisis state. For more than a decade now, golf participation has been in decline despite the industry pouring tens of millions of dollars into grow-the-game initiatives. It’s a problem that no longer can be dismissed, which is why I applaud the effort put forth by TaylorMade chief executive Mark King.

King is a natural salesman. Sure, he’s got the gift of gab, but his real gift is his ability to connect with people. And so he began his presentation Jan. 21 at the PGA Merchandise Show by telling a roomful of PGA professionals, industry leaders and media types a story to which everyone could relate: how he fell in love with the game. The year was 1969, began King. He was 10 years old, growing up in Green Bay, Wis. His dad, a high school teacher, got a job at a nine-hole course, Village Green, and King and his mother played there. A lot.

King is a master storyteller, and he dropped in details about waiting for the local mailman to join him on the first tee after lunch, and of the time kids teased him about his hand-me down Patty Berg clubs at his first tournament and never wanting to play golf again.

“I was so humiliated. It was terrible,” King said. “Being a good mother, we drove down to Dennis Sports Shop on Main Street on the east side of Green Bay, and she got me a brand new set of Wilson Sam Snead Blue Ridge. I think, at the time, they were about $99. And I fell in love with the game.”

With one story and in the span of a few short minutes, everyone inside the ballroom at the Rosen Centre knew how much the game meant to King and why launching Hack Golf, a new initiative to rejuvenate the golf industry, mattered to him.

Then King turned the stage over to Joe Beditz to outline the troubles facing the industry. The picture he painted wasn’t pretty.

“We're leaking golfers,” Beditz said. “We've lost 5 million golfers over the last 10 years. Five million, and that's out of 30 million.”

The NGF also surveyed about 1,200 Americans 18 and older who don't play golf and found that 57 percent hold a negative view of the game. “And you know what the No. 1 word was that they used to describe it?" Beditz said. "Boring.”

More troubling was this: Beditz estimated that 5 million of the remaining 25 million golfers don’t think golf is fun, either, and are likely to quit the game in a few years.

King didn’t need to sit through another Golf 20/20 industry conference to know that golf takes too long, costs too much and is tough to learn. But he also knows this: People find time and find money for the things that they most want to do. The reality is that golf just doesn’t score high enough for most people when it comes to spending their disposable income. Somehow golf has lost relevancy, especially with the 18-34 age demographic.

So what to do? As an industry veteran, King says it's time for a fresh perspective.

“The idea of Golf 20/20 is fantastic, but it's the same industry people who have been around forever, talking about the same issues, with the same lens,” King said.

Later his jab at his cohorts contained a bit more acid: “I don't think there are any great, innovative, bright minds within golf or I think things would be different.”

The idea that industry leaders are the only ones with the answers is folly. There’s an old saying that an amateur built the ark; a host of professionals constructed the Titanic, and we know how its maiden voyage turned out. In the golf space, don’t forget that it was novice golf architects who gave us Pine Valley, Pebble Beach and Oakmont. Along those lines, King wants to give the duffer a voice. It was Gary Hamel, a noted business adviser, who sold King on the concept of crowd-sourcing. “We need to hear from those on the fringes of golf. We need to hear from all the people who tried the game and gave up, who simply think it's kind of lame. And we need thousands, not dozens, of mind-flipping ideas,” Hamel said.

No sooner was the campaign unveiled than critics took aim. Rivals whispered it was nothing more than a TaylorMade marketing campaign. King was quick to dismiss such talk.

“I don't really think equipment is the problem with the game. I think it's the whole experience,” he said. “I don't think we're inviting. I don't think it's fun. I don't think we care about the people on the fringe. We only care about the people who love the game for its traditions. That's ridiculous for me. And they make up such a small part of our game, why would we organize an entire industry around a couple million duffers? Doesn't make any sense to me.”

“If we want to enlarge the game,” Hamel said, “we have to dramatically raise the ratio of fun to frustration. And that's really the goal of Hack Golf, to identify and address those barriers that are keeping millions from enjoying the game as much as they might, that are keeping millions more from even giving it a try.”

Hamel has been down this road before. He knows what he’s facing. Typically, an industry undergoing a revolution in customer expectation goes through phases of denial and rationalization. “A third of the people say it is long overdue,” he told me. “Another third says let’s wait and see, and the rest are happy with how things are and may never get it.”

Hamel is enough of a golfer to understand that at its essence we play for the challenge of getting a little round ball into a cup off in the distance in as few shots as possible. “If you ring the challenge out of the game, there will be no more golf,” he said. “But how do you take the unnecessary frustrations out of it?”

King echoed this sentiment.

“This isn’t about getting an endorsement from the USGA. This has everything to do with getting people outside of the hierarchy of golf and getting them engaged and giving their ideas and gather some momentum through experimentation and getting other groups involved,” he said. “There’s nothing that should threaten anybody here. It’s about ideas that could change the environment for growing the game. I don’t want to change the game. The core game is still where we want to drive people to eventually.”

He continued: “It isn’t meant to threaten the USGA or PGA Tour, but we’re also not waiting for them to get involved. We want them to be involved, don’t get me wrong, but this is not about getting an assembly of the organizations. This is about open-source ideas and then a way to take those ideas, whether it is TaylorMade or our competitors or the associations, and saying this is an interesting idea for getting more people involved in the game.”

And for those who still think this is just a TaylorMade marketing campaign, King said: “This won't work if it's TaylorMade alone. We can host it, we can try to be the driver of it, but as an industry, we're going to have to believe that this way of bringing new people into the game and listening to them and creating new initiatives around what is important to them, if we don't believe in that, it will die.”

He told me: “This is going to be handed off to another group. We probably won’t have anything to do with it after six months of getting it up and running. Another group will run it, but that hasn’t been divulged yet. It is not going to be a TaylorMade initiative. We’ll have someone who will host this initiative, and it won’t be us going forward.”

King ended his presentation with a mood of optimism.

“All of the things Joe (Beditz) said can be reversed, because at the end of the day, we're not talking about bowling or skiing,” he said. “We're talking about the greatest game in the world.”

Nearly 50 years after Player’s generosity, King has pledged $5 million over the next five years to fund his grand experiment to grow the game. Who’s got the next game-changing idea out there?

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