The game of golf is in trouble.
This is what organizations like the National Golf Foundation and various members of the national media have been drumming into our collective psyches over the last several years.
Whether or not you’re willing to buy what they’re selling, it’s hard to ignore the obvious: participation is down and golf’s leading organizations are working overtime to convince the iPhone generation to take up a game that’s been historically slow to embrace new technologies and changes in societal behaviors.
Peter Kratsios is the CEO of a tiny tech start-up with a huge idea. And on Memorial Day, he was also my partner at Eisenhower Park. We were playing the Red Course, one of three championship-caliber designs open to the public at this massive property just 28 miles east of New York City. We got paired with a couple of guys who would have gotten escorted out of any halfway decent country club. One of them was decked out in cargo shorts and a wife-beater; tattoos decorated his arms like sponsor logos on a Nascar driver. His companion was flicking ashes from what little remained of his cigarette and was disparaging the slow group in front of us in a tone guaranteed to offend the esteemed members of Bushwood in Caddyshack.
Barely out of the gate, I began thinking about the long day in store for us. Words like misery and agony were running through my head. Peter, on the other hand, was probably thinking about opportunity and conversion.
Kratsios is the man behind a product called GolfMatch that is available for Apple devices. The recently-released application comes at a time when the marketplace for golf-centric apps has become increasingly crowded. It seems like everyone and their cousin has an idea about how they can leverage technology to augment the game. Competition is stiff for anyone introducing yet another scoring device, GPS tracker or swing aid.
GolfMatch is uniquely suited to succeed because it’s none of those things. The app allows a person to discover other golfers in their area who are compatible with their playing style, handicap, age and other criteria. Essentially, it helps a golfer fill out their foursome from players with a common set of interests, eliminating the concern most people have about being randomly paired up minutes before a scheduled tee time.
“It all starts with the golfer,” Kratsios said. “You have to create a better experience for them. There’s a lot of tee-time aggregators out there, but what do they actually do to create a better golfing experience? Golfers want to play with other golfers at times that are convenient for them at courses at their price range. They also want to feel comfortable with someone their age or handicap and want to play from the same set of tees, because if you play from a different set of tees you already introduce a bit of disconnect.”
GolfMatch got its start, ironically, through a series of random events. Kratsios took a job in digital advertising just after graduating from college in 2011. The idea for what would eventually become the GolfMatch app began gnawing on him shortly after he began working on an ad campaign for Nike Golf.
“They were coming out with a new glove and they wanted to target women, the ages of 36 to 50 in the Northeast between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.,” Kratsios said. “I was looking for more golf publishers for this campaign and I realized that there was nothing really being done to grow the game of golf from a technology standpoint. So I started to think about what I can do to bolster participation.”
He met his first partner purely by accident when he tried to sprint to the train station from his office in the pouring rain.
“On the train, I sat down and saw this young lady sitting across from me laughing cause I looked ridiculous,” Kratsios said. “We started talking about what she did. She actually came out with an app for her company the day before and I mentioned that I had an idea for an app as well.”
Kratsios and Jessica Brondo met for drinks the following day and began working on concepts. The third member of the company, Julio Rivera, was discovered through an acquaintance. At the time, Rivera was a mobile developer at Priceline.com. As coincidence would have it, Rivera was developing a similar idea in his off hours. Kratsios recognized the situation for the opportunity that it was and brought Rivera on board as the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer. Together, the pair have complimented each other and Kratsios credits Rivera’s insights as a novice golfer as being a critical factor in helping to bring the app to market.
“I spent six months putting together financial models and go-to-market strategies,” Kratsios said. “I really knew what I wanted to focus on while still working at 24/7 Media. I was offered a promotion to join the media sales team as an account executive. I turned down the promotion, quit my job and moved home in the same day. I really took a risk.”
It took me a good 20 minutes to navigate the maze of parking lots flanking both ends of Eisenhower Park. I thought I was lucky to find a prime spot near the driving range, but I barely had a chance to stretch my legs when I was told the clubhouse was across the street and that I needed to drive back into the busy two-lane road that cut through the property like a major artery.
Kratsios arrived a few minutes later. It was my second time getting together with him and I was starting to recognize the signature spring in his step, the relaxed posture and the easy-going vibe.
We made our way inside a red-brick building that wasn’t much of a clubhouse, even by public muni standards. The old-fashioned ticketing counters where customers made tee-time inquires and paid their green fees conveyed all the warmth of an off-track betting site.
I was beginning to wonder how a place like this could have hosted the 1926 PGA Championship won by none other than the legendary Walter Hagen. In a friendly gesture, Peter placed a hand on my shoulder and told me not to judge the place until we were on the course. Growing up on Long Island, Eisenhower belonged to a rota of courses he competed on as a junior golfer.
His introduction to the game came at age seven when a neighbor offered to take him to the driving range. Naturally athletic, Kratsios found the act of hitting a golf ball easy from the get-go. For a while he juggled baseball, basketball and golf; eventually, golf won out. He excelled at it first in high school and then at Gettysburg College, starting all four years on the school’s NCAA Division III varsity team.
These days, he channels his competitive nature into running his fledgling start-up. Although he belongs to a private country club on Long Island’s North Shore, more often than not he comes out to places like Eisenhower, Bethpage or Van Cortlandt where he can get his company’s product in front of course owners and potential customers.
Relationship-building, Kratsios told me, is the key component for making GolfMatch a success. The software app that he and his partners have built can help course operators better identify golfers who have either played their courses or are considering playing them in the future. To put it plainly, a lot of munis need all the help they can get. Within Long Island alone there remains a handful of clubs that don’t take advantage of an automated tee-time reservation system. And even among those facilities that are technologically in step, most use a trial-and-error approach to find ways to incentivize people to come back.
“We’re providing a value-added service for every organization and every course that we work with,” Kratsios said. “We want to allow [course owners] to be in the drivers seat to keep their community and target them. Everyone loves that. Nobody is saying we’re hesitant to work with you. Everybody wants to bring more people to the course and to sell more tee times.”
For a small service fee, GolfMatch helps course owners design and distribute bi-monthly marketing campaigns to a targeted list of golfers who have played or wish to play that course from data collected in the app. For course owners, these campaigns drive awareness to their properties, increase retention among existing customers and ultimately lead to additionally sold tee times.
There are about 2,000 active accounts on the GolfMatch platform. Rather than spend money on traditional marketing, Kratsios has leveraged social media, specifically Instagram, to connect with early adopters.
“We really pride ourselves on the community we’ve built on a social basis,” Kratsios said.
The GolfMatch Instagram account has over 8,000 followers and each post generates hundreds of likes. It’s a simple and effective way to connect with a broad spectrum of golfing enthusiasts.
Like other entrepreneurs in the golfing industry, Kratsios is passionate about increasing participation in the game. Although he’s young and tech-savvy, Kratsios has some old-school views about how the game should be played. He applauds any effort by an individual or organization to get people interested in golf, but he’s not personally enthused about courses altering their greens by cutting holes the size of dinner plates, as TaylorMade’s “Hack Golf” initiative has supported.
He conceded that the game can be outlandishly expensive at times, and it’s certainly difficult to play at a high level, but those factors on their own aren’t driving people away or keeping new ones from taking it up. But combine those things with individuals consistently having lousy experiences on the course and you have the makings of a mass exodus.
Over the course of five hours, our playing partners turned out to be reasonably good companions, offsetting what they lacked in playing ability. Although they didn’t look the part, they were no less enthusiastic about the game than any of the old-money members of Shinnecock. With all the holdups we endured between holes, there was plenty of time to make small talk about golf (do fans really miss Tiger?) and about courses (how tough is Bethpage Black?).
As we all know from experience, a blind pairing works out fine on occasion; most times it doesn’t. If you’ve ever teed off with a golfer who hits a 5 iron farther than you hit your driver, then you know what I mean. A better player hangs out in the middle of the fairway waiting to play their approach while you spend a chunk of your round communing with squirrels.
Sometimes it’s not a mismatch of skill, but of attitude. You can’t expect a foursome to function if half the players show up to the course to play for bragging rights while the other half are there to socialize, chug beers or smoke blunts.
Insofar as the GolfMatch app is concerned, it might not always suggest a perfect foursome, but it has parameters in place to help an individual discover other golfers who view the game as a way to compete or a way to have fun, or anything in-between.
“I think everybody understands that the game needs to change; we need to innovate in order to get back some of those golfers that have left and to bring new ones into the game,” Kratsios said. “People at first might be a little confused about how we’re going to bridge that gap. But after we explain our story, it’s eye-brow raising.”
Bridging The Gap
There wouldn’t be much to the GolfMatch story without the actual software app that Rivera, the company’s technology partner, coded entirely on his own under the duress of high expectations and demanding time constraints.
Given those circumstances, the initial release was naturally light on features. The app allowed a person to search for other golfers using a limited set of filters. The same approach applied to finding courses nearby. If you wanted to connect with a golfer, you clicked a button to follow them and crossed your fingers. Attempting to schedule an outing with other GolfMatch users was a crapshoot: a message to your followers may or may not have gotten noticed. Still, even with limited functionality, Kratsios was able to get members of the golf industry and investors excited about the app’s potential.
With the recently-released second iteration of the app, Kratsios and Rivera are planning to blow people away with a bevy of features that expands the software’s capability beyond that of a simple rolodex of golfing buddies.
The new match feature lets users look for pre-existing matches or post new ones to the platform. Once a match is created the owner can fill out the slots in his or her foursome from a list of friends, even from contacts who do not have profiles on GolfMatch. Schedule a day and time for your match and a push notification will be sent out to users who have been invited to participate.
If none of your personal contacts are into golf and you don’t know anyone on the platform, simply post your match to the GolfMatch community at large. A new set of filters help users discover public matches based on location and distance, as well by course name, or type of game (friendly, competitive, wager, family, or networking). If a match catches someone’s eye, they’ll make a request to join.
The experience of creating and filling matches has been engineered to be as seamless as possible. If one of your invitees drops out of your foursome, the match can be resurfaced.
“This allows the match to potentially get filled and to provide revenue for the golf course so that the tee time and green fee isn’t lost,” Kratsios said.
The only way setting up a match could be any easier is with a built-in tee-time aggregator, and if you don’t think Kratsios is working on making that happen, then you’re underestimating his resourcefulness.
If anything is going to prevent GolfMatch from fulfilling it’s potential, it’s the glacial rate of adoption. As Kratsios was quick to point out to me through our closing stretch at Eisenhower, the success of the platform hinges on being able to cultivate a large-scale community.
To that end, Kratsios has struck up relationships with Ship Sticks and the PGA Tour Superstore. These opportunities, and others like it, expose the GolfMatch brand to a highly coveted list of customers. In return, the GolfMatch platform allows these businesses to offer an on-the-course experience that complements their brick-and-mortar operations.
“[PGA Tour Superstore] want to transform their stores into a golf experience,” Kratsios said. “They want people to come in the morning and stay there all day on their simulators. When someone buys something at their store we want to help them bring that customer back in and to transform their consumers into our users.”
Kratsios is unabashedly proud of what his team (which has fewer members than most rock bands) has been able to accomplish in just 12 months. Although he’s only 25, Kratsios has all the characteristics of a classic workaholic. He sleeps with a plugged in iPad by his side, “cause you never know” as he said. Even the golf course, which has always been a refuge for him, now doubles as a place of business. Kratsios keeps his golf bag stocked with extra tees, balls and plenty of GolfMatch paraphernalia. It’s not uncommon to see him attaching marketing materials to the steering wheels of unattended golf carts. He acknowledges that running a start-up isn’t easy or glamorous.
On the teeing ground on the last hole at Eisenhower, Kratsios implored us to bear down and go for par, but it didn’t play out like a scene from Hoosiers. The less accomplished members of our group recorded doubles and triples. Even Peter wrote a bogey on his card. Out of the four of us, Kratsios was the only one who didn’t need advanced arithmetic to tally up his score.
It’s not about what you shoot, Kratsios told me afterwards. Easy for you to say, I said.
Dismissing my wisecrack, he told me the game of golf will be fine. The secret to its longevity and resilience is the camaraderie people develop when they take up the game.
“That’s the story that needs to be conveyed to future generations of golfers in all these grow-the-game initiatives,” he said.
It’s no coincidence that GolfMatch is an attempt to do just that.