Tech Takeover: You Damn Kids, Get ON My Lawn
The #1 hot-button in the game isn’t how far DJ hits the rock and that it now offends a couple of guys who in their day just happened to be the longest hitters in the game (Nicklaus, Norman … meet irony.) It’s not the suite of welcome (and needed, with more still needed) changes to the rules.
No, the primary matter in the foreseeable future is participation. Guys and gals paying green fees, hanging out in the grill room, buying gear.
“The folks who made golf popular in the U.S., they had a particular way that they looked at the game, and that is a lot different than how folks who bring you golf now look at it,” advises Michael Tebbetts, director of sales and marketing at Indian Wells Golf Resort. “People are begging for players to come to courses and at one time they almost were trying to keep people out. It is all about ways to keep it light and fun. It doesn’t only need to be game-focused or -driven. It is about plugging in the phone, having music going, having a cocktail. It is entertainment. There is the PGA TOUR and then there is the rest of everyone else.”
CALLING ALL YOUNGERS
If the bait is fun, the target audience is younger people, and not just younger people who presently play golf. We have a longstanding, staid model for golf, and it’s not working as it once did. For the game to grow, for courses to remain open, for manufacturers to continue to hawk new product, the game needs to mine new players, and that lode is X, Y and Z, the post-Boomer generations. The tools are many. Let’s call them “social technologies.” These are things that affect how we interact with, and within, an activity that is singular in the fleeting moment, yet wholly communal in practice and the collective psyche.
Social tech isn’t the stuff that gets equipment junkies salivating and rules-makers digging in; it’s not COR or MOI or shaft modulus. It’s that other stuff that might drive some of you nuts. Golf is going to go on or go home, however, because of its embrace of things like driving-range games, sports streaming from in-cart video screens, wine-tastings-and-nines, cross-course conveyances seemingly escaped from the skate park and whatever hell is released by Pandora.
M … mu … music? At Bushwood?
“If you [as a course operator] want to survive, you need to make golf entertaining, you need to embrace change,” echoes Susan Olson Sipes, director of golf and head professional at Oxnard’s River Ridge Golf Club. “It’s not what old-fashioned, traditional golf is all about. But golf needs growth. If you want Millennials to come out you have to make it entertaining.”
We need Millennials to come out. In a big way. The Youngers are the future and we all need their bucks in tills and backsides in carts or the game might go before we do. They show significant interest in the game, even if participation lags. And there are two generational cohorts following just behind.
But the paradigm has to shift. The rap on Millennials is that they have short attention spans and a crazy need-to-share-it-all approach to life. In reality, the old-way day of slogging through 18 holes over five hours, with the “proper” golf observances observed, with phones off and brims forward, is a non-starter. The Youngers multi-task, and while they might go in for golf, they also to bike and surf and video game. It all needs to be done socially, too, even if performed solo, so that means smartphones and Spotify.
RISE OF THE MACHINES
Indian Wells Golf Resort was an early adopter with GolfBoards, those motorized skateboard-ish contraptions that you steer around the course with snowboard-like body language. GolfBoards don’t carry the business model; compared to carts, they are niche. They do drive traffic to the course.
“GolfBoards aren’t for our everyday players or residents,” Tebbetts points out. “People who come in from other markets want to try a different experience, and the boards are gaining popularity. We’ve long had people who come here once a year, some more often. We are on that rotation a lot more now because we offer this option.”
GolfBoard users are typically younger, as Sipes reiterates in relation to River Ridge’s fleet of eight, and concurs with the draw factor: “People do show up because of them, they are bringing in players who might not otherwise play our course.”
Though not yet in SoCal, Greg Norman has teamed up with Verizon on the Shark Experience, an in-cart entertainment portal with services ranging from the basics of course yardages and scoring all the way through to sports, news and music streaming. Tebbetts is looking at the system for Indian Wells Golf Resort — it presently is at facilities in Arizona and Florida with broader rollout slated for 2018 — continuing with the mantra of different and enjoyable: “Growing up, golf was always so damn serious, it was like almost waiting for someone to tell you not to have fun.”
River Ridge, which over the years has embraced alt-golf or golf-out-of-the-box with FootGolf, GolfBoards and a just-plotted and much-needed-in-the-modern-game 4,100-yard orientation on its Vineyard Course (one of two), might not go full-on Shark Experience owing to the cost. But undeterred, Sipes casually points out that most every option of the system and more is already in most every player’s pocket: the ubiquitous smartphone. A portal for all manner of tools and applications via their phones, players have access to everything from mapping to multi-media to swing analytics, to PING’s iPing platform to Cobra Puma Golf’s new through-the-bag, Arccos-powered, phone-linked “Cobra Connect” diagnostic technology embedded in the F8 series of clubs.
“I often come across hard-core traditionalists who think there hasn’t been a good course built since World War II, that everyone should walk and only single malts belong in the bar,” says course designer Damian Pascuzzo. “‘Well, good for you,’ I think, ‘that works for you but not most everyone else.’ I have no problems with these innovations, these technological improvements. So many are narrow-minded in how golf needs to be played. Golf can be 20 different things. If people in the industry want to really understand what golf is, go out as a single and get paired with three strangers. That is how we should assess golf decisions. That’s the true view from the majority of golfers.”
STANDARD. COMMON. COURTESY.
There remains a place for golf’s core traditions: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship. We lose golf if we lose those. It need not be musty and tweedy. Hallowed? Please, it’s still just a sport and few play a gutty, anyway. Love it, care for it, but for heaven’s sake enjoy it. But remember that enjoyment takes many forms.
Take the music thing, which is the most widely encountered manifestation of social tech. From bag drops to ranges to phones to cart-affixed speakers — or hopefully ear buds for the golf-is-silence believers — tunes are nearly as much a part of the modern playing experience as GPS watches.
I put out an APB to 60 or so golf friends — instructors, manufacturing reps, course designers, writers, the usual playing thugs, pros — and not one broadsided the USS SiriusXM.
Let’s not delude ourselves: music on the golf course does drive some batcrazy, or maybe it’s just a particular genre. So just be nice out there. Ask. Wait for the drive home to blast it if your we-just-met cart mate isn’t so hip to the idea. Mute or turn the volume down when nearing other players.
Standard. Common. Courtesy.
We call it golf.
Listen to Lompoc’s Ed Hall, a financial planner and single-digit who plays out of the Mission Club and La Purisima GC, for what seems the proper perspective: “I’m not the most technologically-driven person in the world. But I’m not in the Stone Age, either. Having a little music in the background doesn’t bother me. I don’t personally do that. I’m there to golf, relax, get away from the office, so I’ve not really thought about having music. But it doesn’t bother me as long as I can’t hear it from three fairways over.”
Cue up Dylan?
Did snowboarding save skiing? No. Did it help ski areas stay afloat, fill hotel rooms and create new demand for retail goods? Did it launch a whole new cadre of events and competitions? Did it spawn an entire new sports culture? Yes.
Evolution — adapt or perish. Co-existence, too.
Golf courses are expensive and cracking the nut monthly is no easy task. So when the driving range closes early to flip to a concert venue, when the grill is given over to the local brewer for a tap takeover, when blank spaces on the tee sheet become two-fer
pricing schemes and four-hole loops — hell, even if you think glow-ball is silly and Segways are hell’s own stallions — think for a moment. As “real” golfers we should be thankful for these new, additional forms of revenue because they might just be the incremental coin keeping the lights on and the grass green; no course, no golf.
“I’m a firm believer that if you keep doing things the old way you are going to fail,” concludes Pascuzzo. “In-N-Out Burger is probably the only business that can do that. Generational attitudes aren’t changing; they have already changed. That is a huge part of this equation.”
It’s the new math:
X + Y + Z = golf’s future.