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 coveted FedEx Cup Top 30: Why making it to the Tour Championship really matters
This week at the BMW Championship held at Medinah Golf Club in Chicago, the top 70 players left in the FedEx Cup Playoffs are looking to seal their spot in the top 30 and get to East Lake for the Tour Championship.
Not only does getting into the top 30 mean a chance at winning the FedEx Cup and a cool $15 million bonus for winning the event, but heading into the 2020 season, being in the top 30 comes with some big perks. This top 30 threshold allows players the opportunity to build their schedules around the biggest event in golf.
Let’s take a look at what punching a ticket to East Lake really gets you
- An automatic invitation into every major in 2020: The Masters, PGA Championship, US Open, and The Open Championship. For many players qualifying for these events, especially The Masters in a lifelong dream.
- Invitation to all the WGC Events: There are only a few event on tour that get you an automatic paycheck and FedEx Cup points. Being eligible for the WGCs shows that you are a world-class player, and with these events on the schedule, you don’t have to worry about qualifying through world rankings.
- Invitation to all limited field events: This includes the Genesis Invitational (formerly Genesis Open / LA Open), The Arnold Palmer Invitational, The Memorial, and The Players Championship.
If a player was to play every one of the qualified events that would put them at 12 events for the season—to maintain a card for the next year a player has to play in at least 15 events. If you conclude that many of these are also winners and will play in the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii that would put the players at 13 events.
This is why being in the top 30 is such a vital line in the proverbial sand—it gives these top players the ability to pick and choose their schedules for the 2019/2020 season without the stress of worrying about what events they are in. Although not to the same extent, this is also why every cutoff is so crucial for each player, whether it be the PGA Tour top 125, PGA Tour 125-150, or those players that gained their cards through the Korn Ferry Tour. Every dollar and every point earned accumulates towards playing opportunities for the next season!
WRX Q&A: NewClub’s Matt Considine
A friend of a friend pointed me to NewClub’s website. Having never heard anything about the effort previously, my first impression of NewClub was a product of its homepage, which looks something like (OK, exactly like) this.
“Sounds great,” I thought. “But what the heck does all of this mean practically?”
To get the answer to that question, I got in touch with founder and CEO Matt Considine, who was kind enough to answer a few questions about the venture.
GolfWRX: Let’s start with a little bit about your background in golf…
Matt Considine: As Lebron likes to say “I’m just a kid from Akron” and like many Midwestern kids, I’ve loved playing games with my friends, especially the game of golf. I grew up working and playing at area clubs, munis, and driving ranges. I always had a club in my hands — my mom will attest to all the divots in her carpet and repaired windows in our house. My first internship in college was with IMG Sports in Cleveland and that was my first formal introduction to the golf industry.
WRX: How did arrive at the concept for NewClub?
MC: Golf societies have been around since 1744, so I’m not sure I can take credit for conceiving anything. We took an old idea and made it new again, something that would mesh with the life of a modern golfer.
The first time I was introduced to a golf society was in 2005, and I haven’t been able to shake the concept since. Like many people I’ve talked to, I was burnt out and frustrated with golf, so I quit my college team and shipped off that summer to study at University College Cork in Ireland for 9 months.
I left to get away from golf but it was my experiences in Ireland that introduced me to a whole new way of enjoying the game. After getting laughed off Cork’s Hurling team (Ireland’s native sport) they found out I could play a little bit of golf and offered me a spot on the club team (league rules permitted one American per squad). My dad shipped my clubs over and I was back in business. Because their University teams operated on a lean budget, we would play matches against local societies and clubs in between the college matches to keep the competition sharp. It was those matches and people I met that taught me a whole new way to look at, appreciate, and enjoy the game of golf. It was a miraculous blessing looking back on it now.
Fast forward 10 years, I was living in Chicago working in business development for a technology company. I kept meeting people who were self-proclaimed “golfers,” but not playing much golf. So a small group of friends took a trip over to Scotland where we had an especially enlightening experience playing the Old Course and hanging out at The New Golf Club of St. Andrews after our match.
It was our experience there that was the final spark that NewClub needed. We enjoyed our lunch while The New Golf Club members file through the entrance, four golfers at a time to reminisce about their game on one of the seven links courses available to them through the St. Andrews Links Trust and their golf society membership.
We met teachers, bankers, architects, grocers, police officers, accountants, and fishermen. We heard stories about legendary members like Tom Morris and Sandy Herd. The New Golf Club of St. Andrews is a magical place where any golfer in their community, anyone in good standing with a passion for the game could make their golfing home.
When I returned to Chicago from that second pilgrimage in May of 2015, I decided it was time to start enjoying golf again. Just like the way I used to as a kid, the way those clubs and societies did in Ireland, and the way those members did at The New Golf Club of St. Andrews. That summer I started a standing game every Saturday at any compelling course I could find and my golf society was born. Then in 2017, we made NewClub official with 50 founding members and 5 clubs in Chicago willing to host the society.
WRX: What’s happened since launch and where you are now?
MC: The society has grown to over 300 members and we have relationships with over 50 private clubs and golf courses that we find fun and compelling places to play the game. We have standing tee times every Wednesday to Sunday throughout the golf season and host five tournaments and three trips every year. Next Spring, we have our first NewClub trip scheduled to back to Scotland.
We’ve also introduced an ambassador program for people from all around the country. It’s been amazing how many people we’ve met who are eager for something like this in their own community, a golf society that they can genuinely be proud of.
WRX: Anything more about what members are saying and what the feedback is been like?
MC: In a lot of ways, we’ve set up this really unique society golf experiment, so we’re not afraid to try new things and see how people respond. Our members have been incredibly helpful with feedback. We’ve been listening a lot, watching how they use the mobile app, how they play their golf, learning about things they need, things they don’t. It all has helped us get to where we are now.
Overall, we’ve found that people have enjoyed the access and discovery of new and exciting courses, but the more pleasant surprise has been how much our members enjoy meeting new people and playing with each other. Nobody ever thinks (or admits) that they need golf buddies. But what we’ve found is that people are far more likely to play a round if they know they’ll be playing with someone they actually want to play with.
We’ve also learned that match play is very unappreciated in our country. Members love the matches, and match play is one of our core principles at NewClub.
WRX: What’s next for NewClub?
MC: We have plans for our second market launch in 2020 and will continue to grow our ambassador program to show us the road ahead. People are starting to stand up and say “this is how I want to experience golf,” so we know there is a serious need out there and we want to make sure we are meeting the demand by growing in the right way.
WRX: What do prospective members need to know?
MC: We have a really straightforward and proprietary application process on our website. Every prospective member needs to complete the application before being considered for membership. We look for applicants who possess a high quality of character, passion, and respect for the game of golf, and always leave the course in better shape than they found it.
Slow play is all about the numbers
If you gather round, children, I’ll let you in on a secret: slow play is all about the numbers. Which numbers? The competitive ones. If you compete at golf, no matter the level, you care about the numbers you post for a hole, a round, or an entire tournament. Those numbers cause you to care about the prize at the end of the competition, be it a handshake, $$$$, a trophy, or some other bauble. Multiply the amount that you care, times the number of golfers in your group, your flight, the tournament, and the slowness of golf increases by that exponent.
That’s it. You don’t have to read any farther to understand the premise of this opinion piece. If you continue, though, I promise to share a nice anecdotal story about a round of golf I played recently—a round of golf on a packed golf course, that took a twosome exactly three hours and 10 minutes to complete, holing all putts.
I teach and coach at a Buffalo-area high school. One of my former golfers, in town for a few August days, asked if we could play the Grover Cleveland Golf Course while he was about. Grover is a special place for me: I grew up sneaking on during the 1970s. It hosted the 1912 U.S. Open when it was the Country Club of Buffalo. I returned to play it with Tom Coyne this spring, becoming a member of #CitizensOfACCA in the process.
Since my former golfer’s name is Alex, we’ll call him Alex, to avoid confusion. Alex and I teed off at 1:30 on a busy, sunny Wednesday afternoon in August. Ahead of us were a few foursomes; behind us, a few more. There may have been money games in either place, or Directors’ Cup matches, but to us, it was no matter. We teed it high and let it fly. I caught up on Alex’ four years in college, and his plans for the upcoming year. I shared with him the comings and goings of life at school, which teachers had left since his graduation, and how many classrooms had new occupants. It was barroom stuff, picnic-table conversation, water-cooler gossip. Nothing of dense matter nor substance, but pertinent and enjoyable, all the same.
To the golf. Neither one of us looked at the other for permission to hit. Whoever was away, at any given moment, mattered not a bit. He hit and I hit, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes within an instant of the other. We reached the putting surface and we putted. Same pattern, same patter. Since my high school golfers will need to choose flagstick in or out this year, we putted with it in. Only once did it impact our roll: a pounded putt’s pace was slowed by the metal shaft. Score one for Bryson and the flagstick-in premise!
Grover tips out around 5,600 yards. After the U.S. Open and the US Public Links were contested there, a healthy portion of land was given away to the Veteran’s Administration, and sorely-needed hospital was constructed at the confluence of Bailey, Lebrun, and Winspear Avenues. It’s an interesting track, as it now and forever is the only course to have hosted both the Open and the Publinx; since the latter no longer exists, this fact won’t change. It remains the only course to have played a par-6 hole in U.S. Open competition. 480 of those 620 yards still remain, the eighth hole along Bailey Avenue. It’s not a long course, it doesn’t have unmanageable water hazards (unless it rains a lot, and the blocked aquifer backs up) and the bunkering is not, in the least, intimidating.
Here’s the rub: Alex and I both shot 75 or better. We’re not certain what we shot, because we weren’t concerned with score. We were out for a day of reminiscence, camaraderie, and recreation. We golfed our balls, as they say in some environs, for the sheer delight of golfing our balls. Alex is tall, and hits this beautiful, high draw that scrapes the belly of the clouds. I hit what my golfing buddies call a power push. It gets out there a surprising distance, but in no way mimics Alex’ trace. We have the entire course covered, from left to right and back again.
On the 14th tee, I checked my phone and it was 3:40. I commented, “Holy smokes, we are at two hours for 13 holes.” We neither quickened nor slowed our pace. We tapped in on 18, right around 4:40, and shook hands. I know what he’s been up to. He understands why I still have a day job, and 18 holes of golf were played—because we both cared and didn’t care.
There you have it, children. Off with you, now. To the golf course. Play like you don’t care.
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