Can a 15-Inch Hole Save the Game of Golf?

Golf is hard to learn and impossible to master. Truth be told, I can't quit you, golf. But if participation continues to decline, I may not have a choice.
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Golf is hard to learn and impossible to master. For me, this is part of its charm. In my teens, I became obsessed with swinging like Ben Hogan and to that end would hit balls into a net for hours, until my hands literally bled. This pursuit morphed into an outright addiction with the associated high and lows and regular proclamations to friends and family that I was quitting. Truth be told, I can't quit you, golf. But if participation continues to decline, I may not have a choice.

Participation is down approximately 30 percent since 2005 with only about eight percent of the population, roughly 25 million people, regularly playing the game. In fact, some in the industry believe that the game is in danger of going to the grave with the aging baby boomer population. This decline is due in large part to the difficulty in learning the game and the amount of time it takes to play the game.

Hack Golf, a crowd-sourcing initiative recently launched by TaylorMade and the PGA of America aims to reverse this trend with an "open innovation and collaborative platform" designed to generate practical ideas to make the game more fun and approachable and real-world test the best ideas to see what sticks. The ultimate goal -- reinvigorate interest in the game and attract new players. The 15-inch cup is one of these ideas. In TaylorMade's preliminary testing, the average round was reduced by 45 minutes and the average score was reduced by 10 strokes.

For its second test, TaylorMade invited a group of industry professionals and two of its star players, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose, to Reynolds Plantation to participate in a 9-hole tournament.

I initially balked at playing in this event. What self-respecting golf purist would entertain the idea of playing a watered down version of the game? Putting requires analysis, skill and touch. To modify that element seemed a gimmick. However, after speaking with Mark King, the CEO of TaylorMade and one of the driving forces behind Hack Golf, it became clear that this is no gimmick. Most importantly, it's not an effort to replace the current game but instead to offer a parallel version of the game that is easier and more fun. It sounded reasonable so on the Monday after the Masters, I found myself on a tee box fortunate enough to have landed in Sergio Garcia's foursome.

I'm not sure what was more initially disorienting, playing to a 15-inch cup or playing with a top tour professional. The sound that Sergio's driver was that of a shotgun, mine, something closer to a BB gun. In any case, as we approached the first green, the group was all smiles. A 15-inch cup looks downright bizarre, especially to eyes used to seeing a hole about 1/4 the size. Of course, all of us were certain we'd make our first long putts. All of us missed. Burning edges and leaving it short were still part of the game but the size of the cup definitely added a fun factor.

As the round progressed, chipping in from virtually anywhere on or around the green became a realistic possibility and sinking putts from nine or 10 feet became a near certainty. In the end, the whole experience felt more like a game, less like a pursuit. And we finished in an hour and a half.

The burning question; will these types of experiments ultimately translate to new golfers? It won't be long before we have an answer. By the end of May, approximately 100 courses will participate in a beta test of the 15-inch cup. I, for one, hope for success. Otherwise in ten years, many golf courses may be converted into suburban housing developments or worse yet, strip malls filled with addicts even worse than golfers. Shoppers.

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