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.
[quote_box_center]“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.”[/quote_box_center]
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.
[quote_box_center]“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.”[/quote_box_center]
He met his first partner purely by accident when he tried to sprint to the train station from his office in the pouring rain.
[quote_box_center]“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.”[/quote_box_center]
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.
[quote_box_center]“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.”[/quote_box_center]
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.
[quote_box_center]“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.”[/quote_box_center]
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.
[quote_box_center]“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.”[/quote_box_center]
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.
[quote_box_center]”That’s the story that needs to be conveyed to future generations of golfers in all these grow-the-game initiatives,” he said.[/quote_box_center]
It’s no coincidence that GolfMatch is an attempt to do just that.
The 19th Hole: Mark Rolfing and architect David Kidd on Carnoustie’s challenges
It’s Open Championship week at Carnoustie! This week, Michael Williams hosts NBC and Golf Channel analyst Mark Rolfing and award-winning architect David Kidd (Bandon Dunes) to talk about how the pros will try to tame “Car-nasty.” It also features Jaime Darling of Golf Scotland on the many attractions around Carnoustie outside the golf course.
Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!
How often should you actually get “Up-and-Down” based on your handicap?
‘Up and Downs’ have long been the accepted measure of skill in the short game. The chart below shows average performance in this area for the PGA Tour and an array of handicap levels. How do you fit in?
A few points of definition: The above refers to short game shots around the green, other than from the sand. [Stay tuned: sand shots will be my next article.] I consider the short game to be all shots from within 50 yards of the hole. This distance was a topic of debate 30 years ago when I was developing my golf analysis program. I was fortunate to be working with Golf Digest Golf Schools and some of the top instructors were good enough to embrace the better form of game analysis that I was creating. In particular, I owe a great deal to Chuck Cook, Jack Lumpkin and Hank Johnson. Their help and encouragement in my early stages gave me a much needed boost of momentum. Little did we know that what I then called “Strokes Lost and Saved” would ultimately become the accepted standard of analysis on the PGA Tour — now know as “Strokes Gained.” Anyway, we agreed that 50 yards was the right distance range for the short game for two reasons:
- It represented the short game for virtually every handicap level, men and women.
- It was a short enough distance that it didn’t need to be sliced even further.
That said, I do NOT believe that “Up and Downs” are an appropriate or accurate measure of short game skill for two reasons:
- It represents the combination of two skills: Short Game and Putting.
- It ignores the ERRORS or shots that actually miss the green.
In my 30+ years of studying performance at all skill levels, I have found that it is the FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of bad shots (errors) that do more to influence a player’s scoring level than do all the good shots. Accordingly, I built the ability to capture data on the common errors in the game into ShotByShot.com.
The true measure of a player’s short game skill is their Strokes Gained in that facet. BUT, that is simply a number — a positive number is good and a negative number, not so much. But how then to best display the skill that is associated with the Strokes Gained number? I believe the combination of three stats to be the correct way to display short game skill:
- Average putting distance, when the green is successfully hit.
- Percent shots hit to within 5 feet of the hole
- Percent errors, or shots that miss the putting surface.
Where does your game fall in these two important categories?
Note, that the two lines cross at about a 16 handicap. That is actually a better than average golfer yet for every Chip/Pitch shot that they successfully get to within 5 feet of the hole, they are also chunking or sculling one and missing the green altogether. Work to dramatically reduce the errors and that 16 will drop to 12 or 13?
You might ask: How can the PGA Tour make more errors than the scratch golfer? Good question! I have two explanations:
- They really are that good! Regardless of the relative difficulty of the shot, Tour players will go for it. They have the confidence that when they miss they will get the next up and down. At the same time, the amateur that has reached the lofty level of Scratch has generally done so thru rigorous consistency and the avoidance of errors. At the low handicap levels, a bogey can be acceptable but a mistake that results in a double is NOT.
- The tour Shotlink data considers the fringe of the green to be a miss whereas I recommend that players count the fringe as a green hit and a putting opportunity. Your long game has been efficient enough to get there and should be rewarded with the GIR. At the same time, to count the shot from the fringe as a short game shot will unfairly reward your short game skill for what was actually a putt.
That reminds me again of my very early days when Chuck Cook said to me: “Pete, Tour players don’t make errors in the short game!” See Chuck, I was right, they do! For a Complete Strokes Gained Analysis of your game, log on to: ShotByShot.com.
Think Carnoustie’s hard? Try winning a title on it playing golf with one arm
When things get challenging during the 147th Open this week on the Championship Course at Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland, the players would do well to think of Mike Benning–specifically the fortitude he channeled into success at the venerable venue.
Benning grew up with golf at Congressional while his father, Bob, was head professional at the iconic country club in Bethesda, Md. Due to a rare form of cancer, Benning, who was already a top junior in the Washington, D.C. area, lost his left arm below the elbow to amputation at age 14.
Rather than let that stop him from playing, he learned to adapt. So much so that he won back-to-back Society of One-Armed Golfers world championships in 1993-94. The first win came at Seaford Golf Course in Sussex, England, in 1993. Benning defended his title at Carnoustie in 1994, the 56th and 57th renditions of the annual event, which began in the 1930s.
Benning was low medalist in stroke play at Seaford, shooting 80-81-161. With the top 16 finishers advancing to match play, Benning won four matches in two days to become champion. He went to Carnoustie the next year full of confidence but couldn’t find the form initially that carried him at Seaford, qualifying 10th in medal play.
“My game wasn’t on, and the course was brawny and fast,” Benning said this week from his home in Scituate, Mass. “The course was so dry it was grey, and it was windy. That makes Carnoustie very difficult, even more challenging than normal. I had a difficult draw in match play, but I found my game when it mattered most, and only one of my matches went to the 18th hole.”
In the championship match, Benning defeated Scotsman Brian Crombie of Dundee, a 25-minute drive from Carnoustie.
“He had about 50 friends and family members rooting him on, the crowd was definitely behind him,” Benning recalled. “But I had a couple Americans following me. One was Mike Gibson, who now works for Titleist. He came out wearing a pair of red plus fours and an American flag shirt. He and Mark Frace really propped me up. I remember having a big decision on the 10th hole – whether to try and get a 3-wood over the burn – so I turned and looked at those guys behind me, and they encouraged me to go for it. I cleared the burn and ended up 12 feet from the hole.”
Benning was an independent sales rep in the golf business before joining Hanger, Inc., the leading U.S. provider of prosthetics and orthotics, where he is currently Marketing Manager. He has played other Open Championship courses but calls Carnoustie’s Championship layout “probably the greatest risk-reward course” in the rota. “Seeing it on television doesn’t do justice to the demanding test of golf it presents players,” he said.
To underscore his assertion, Benning cited the 6th hole – “Hogan’s Alley” – named after 1953 Open Champion Ben Hogan. Here is the description for it from the Carnoustie Golf Links website. “Normally played into prevailing wind, this can be a severe par 5. Bunkers and out of bounds await the miss-cued drive and although the best line is up Hogan’s Alley between the bunkers and the out of bounds fence, it requires a brave player to drive to that narrow piece of fairway. The second shot is no less perilous with a ditch angling across the fairway and the out of bounds continuing to be a threat. The approach is reasonably straightforward to an undulating green, particular care must be taken if the pin is located on the back-right portion of the green. A player should always be content with a five on this hole as it can be the ruin of many a scorecard.”
Benning said the pair of fairway bunkers side by side on the 14th hole – known as “The Spectacles – have to be experienced to be understood how hard they play for those unfortunate enough to find them.
“I hit into one of them during a match and it was the only time I had to hit backwards out of a bunker during the championship,” Benning remembered. “The face of the bunker was unthinkably high.”
The closing holes at Carnoustie’s Championship Course – Nos. 16-18 – may be the most difficult finish in all major golf, particularly No. 18, named “Home”.
“Just ask Jean Van de Velde,” said Benning, referring to the Frenchman who led by three strokes going to final hole of the 1999 Open Championship. Van de Velde took triple bogey to fall back into a tie and playoff, which he lost to Paul Lawrie. No golf follower who watched the debacle can forget the image of Van de Velde standing in Barry’s Burn with his trouser bottoms rolled up, hands on hips, stunned disbelief etched on his face. Conversely, Lawrie’s final round 67 astounded Benning, who pointed out that the final round average score was significantly higher. The 18th also cost Johnny Miller the 1975 Open title, after Miller took two shots to get out of a fairway bunker on the hole.
Suffice it to say, Carnoustie will provide many of the world’s greatest players the chance for immortal golf glory this week, or demoralizing defeat. Maybe both. Whomever emerges as champion, Mike Benning will relate to the elation felt after prevailing on one of the game’s greatest courses.
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