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#Hackgolf: My idea for growing the game

5/08/2014
At the PGA Show in January, I attended the unveiling of TaylorMade's #HACKGOLF initiative focused on growing the game. Admittedly, I was initially skeptical about TaylorMade's apparent sudden streak of altruism. From this outsider's perspective, for years it seemed that golf's shrinking pie wasn't much of a concern to the TMAG CEO Mark King, as long as his piece of that pie kept growing at the expense of other manufacturers. Eventually TaylorMade must've realized that wasn't a sustainable long-run business strategy. Eventually, they'd have to focus on growing the size of the pie.

Almost four months later, and @HackGolf has about 2,600 followers and its website has 1,400 ideas submitted on its hackgolf.org website (which I looked at for the first time just now and it does look pretty slick). I'm not sure what Mark King's expectations were but those numbers seem low to me.

It seems that the ideas were currently running with are the 15-inch golf hole and the soccer/golf mash-up Footgolf. Although I'm pretty far down the purist spectrum, I'm not really opposed to either idea. However, one thing that has been eating at me lately is this: how in the world did they settle on 15-inches as the right number? That just seems absurdly big to me, to the extent that it would actually do a disservice to chip-in's, hole-out's and even aces. My 12-year old son who has played less than 10 rounds of golf in his life and could not break 130 would have a hole-in-one if he had played on a 15-inch cup. But is that really a good thing, or does it cheapen the accomplishment? (as my kids have entered the youth sports stage, I'm growing more and more frustrated with watered-down accomplishments. What I call the Lowest Common Denomi-nation.) What if he had hit a perfect shot that would've been an ace on a regulation hole, only to be downgraded to golf's equivalent to shooting fish in a barrel?

Playing with my kids, I can see the merit in a larger golf hole. One of the most frustrating things as a kid (and sometimes as a parent) is that they often zig-zag the golf hole when putting because they can't get any putt started on-line. Often times they zip the ball past the cup and wind up further away then when they started. The margin of error is just too thin for beginning golfers on four and five footers. I've seen my kids have a reasonable chance at an elusive par, only to 11-putt from less than 20 feet. This usually leads to frustration. Sometimes it leads to tears. A 15-inch hole definitely solves this problem. But I would argue that a 6-inch hole might very well be good enough.

So while these outside-the-box ideas might make a dent, my take is the basics of the game don't have to change in order to save golf. Part of the appeal of golf is the size of the hole seems just about perfect to me. I happen to like putting. I happen to be pretty good at it. There is a sense of accomplishment when correctly reading a 20-footer and demoralizing your opponent at the same time. If anything, slowing the greens down, introducing some contours into the greens and make putting fun as opposed to terrifying might just do the trick (see Bob Carney's take on golfwrx.com).

But I digress.  Instead of focusing on the size of the golf hole, I wanted to revisit my initial reaction to the #HACKGOLF launch:
Four months later, my stance hasn't changed. I caddied one summer at St. Charles Country Club outside of Chicago. My love of the game was cemented on Monday mornings that year. Many of my best golfing friends were introduced to the game in the same way. Some of these guys didn't have parents who played and never would've been exposed to the game otherwise.

More subtly and perhaps more importantly, caddying at a private club exposed me to a world that I was completely unfamiliar with. St. Charles CC was by far the nicest place I had ever set foot on in my life. Suddenly, I was faced with having to interact and have semi-intelligent conversation with successful adults on a regular basis. Some of that must've had an impact on me. That last point is probably even more important today, considering a 13-year old kid could go a whole week without making eye contact with anybody.

The truth was, I was a miserable caddy. I was hooked on playing the game to such an extreme that watching others play golf for four hours was torture. Especially getting up at 5:30 AM to do it. I only lasted one summer, but I was hooked with the game for life. But I can look back at caddying that summer and say it was a life-altering experience that in many ways shaped who I am today.

Over the past two years, I had been thinking quite a bit about how to grow the game and wondering if there was a way to use my One Divot charity to support these growth efforts. Last winter, we sponsored an auction fundraiser and raised over $18,000 for the Midnight Golf program in Detroit. I continue to seek out those types of opportunities to partner with junior golf programs. Personally, I am also looking to start a junior golf club at the middle school in town, something that received an enthusiastic response from the faculty members that I brought the idea to. Hopefully we can get that up and running next fall.

Still, the majority of my recent grow the game thoughts have centered on the caddies. If the rise of carts and the decline of caddies is a root cause of the decline of the game, is there a way to reverse that trend? Is the horse already out of the proverbial cart barn (sorry)? Are U.S. golfers so far gone the proverbial cart path (last time, I swear) that there's no turning back? Are courses today so overwatered and expensive to maintain that they absolutely need the cart revenue to survive? Is anybody in the golf industry willing to invest in an initiative that might take 15 years before it starts paying off?

I am fortunate to live in Chicago, the epicenter of caddie golf in the U.S. Thanks to the work of the Western Golf Association and the Evans Scholarship Foundation, the caddie-club culture is still going strong here. I was thrilled to do my four Hundred Hole Hikes last summer for both the Evans Scholars here and the Solich Caddie and Leadership Academy in Denver last year, and I'm planning to hike for the same two causes again this summer (see http://hundredholehike.com/golfers/jim-colton for more information).

Last summer, I got to spend some time with members of the WGA and meet some prospective Evans Scholars at Cantigny Golf Course in my hometown. I got to see the great work that the WGA is doing and how it is literally changing the lives of those who get the scholarship. I knew I wanted to hike for the Evans Scholarship and help in any way that I could.

There was one other thought that I came away with that day: what about the caddies that don't get the Evans Scholarships? What happens to them?

That might seems like a negative take on the WGA, but I don't intend it to be. They have limited spots and go through a rigorous process to select the most deserving candidates. I'm sure there are young men and women that they agonize over having to turn down. I couldn't help but think about the kid whose only real hopes for college were pinned to getting the Evans Scholarship. What if he or she felt short? Was there a way to help someone like that, or more generally, help caddies save money for college?

That is when I landed on my idea for #hackgolf: Caddie529

As its name suggests, Caddie529 would be a 529 college savings plan geared for caddies. Essentially, it is a way for caddies to decide to set aside a portion of their caddie fees to go directly into a 529 savings plan. A few key points:

- For the caddie, it is a public declaration that the he or she is serious about investing the future.

- Golfers/members can request a "529" caddie for loops and know that they are likely getting someone who is responsible and committed, as well as knowing that some or all of the fee that they are paying will go directly into a college savings fund. Maybe knowing the money is going to a good cause leads a golfer to try walking with a caddie instead of automatically taking a cart. Maybe that golfer realizes that he can, in fact, walk 18 holes and enjoy it. Anything that could lead to more golfers walking is a plus in my book.

- The program would have to start at the club level -- club's could differentiate their caddie programs and attract responsible young caddies by being a part of the caddie529 network.

- Some percentage of funds set aside by the caddies would ideally by matched by the caddie's home club, One Divot and corporate sponsors, offering return on investment right off the bat. The club could set aside a fundraising day geared towards raising money for matching funds for its caddies -- either a Hundred Hole Hike, charity outing, auction, or other fundraising method. 100% of the money raised by a given club would be distributed to its caddies. Centrally-raised funds would be distributed to all caddies on a pro-rata basis.

- The program would not compete with the Evans Scholars, as someone who is awarded an Evans Scholars could use funds for a 5th year in college or for graduate school studies. 529 funds can also be transferred to other beneficiaries.

- One key aspect of 529 plans is they can be used for a wide range of post high-school education programs, such as trade schools or technical schools. Similarly, Caddie529 could be used by anyone looking to invest in his or her future.

- I'm a firm believer in a good logo. This is what I scratched together -- the 5,2,9 is meant to represent the look of blade irons as a caddy is presenting them to his golfer (though no caddie worth his salt would have those three clubs next to each other). The caddie part would look like that old cursive script you'd see stamped on irons from the 60's and 70's.



- Is it caddie529 or caddy529?

One big draw that I see with caddying is that it offers one of the earliest opportunities for young people to work, with most starting at or around 13 years of age. With respect to college savings, obviously the earlier someone starts the better. Hopefully families are already saving for their kid's education, but for some caddie529 participants, it could be their first foray into investing and financial management. There would seem to be a good opportunity to partner with organizations or financial institutions to teach these young men and women about financial literacy.

If the club and corporate matches are significant, I could envision a big push (perhaps by parents, but that's okay) into caddying as an employment option. Some portion of those new caddies are going to fall in love with the game. Some may be future members of the clubs that they caddie at. Hopefully clubs can take the long-view and get behind this concept.

The idea is admittedly still in its infancy and there are questions about how it would work logistically and how to structure it in order to take advantage of the tax benefits already inherent with 529 plans. I honestly do not have the expertise or the resources to take this idea to the next level. One aspect of the #hackgolf initiative that I did enjoy is the open-source format of it. Instead of sitting on this idea and trying to find time to make progress on it, I'm hoping that brainstorming about it here might lead to someone running with the idea and bringing it to fruition. I'm happy to discuss any thoughts on this idea -- you can comment below or reach me at jim@onedivot.org to discuss further.



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