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 difference between “ugly” and “unorthodox” golf swings
I’d like you pretend for a moment that you were asked to name the five ugliest golf swings by players who had won a major championship. Who would you select, and what criteria would you use to make that judgment? You might say you’re not sure, but you would have no difficulty identifying an ugly swing if you were to see one, right? The question is, what factors would move you toward that decision?
I struggled with this exact question when it was posed to me and others who were members of Golf Magazine’s “Top 100” panel at the time. In making my decision, I was concerned that I did not confuse UNORTHODOX with UGLY. The fact is that some of the greatest golfers throughout history have been considered to have had unorthodox swings.
- The word “unorthodox” is defined as that which is contrary to what is usual, traditional or generally accepted.
- The word “ugly” is defined as that which is unpleasant or repulsive in appearance.
In comparing the two definitions, they are clearly quite different. The word “unorthodox” suggests something that is different from the norm, while the word “ugly” relates to the appearance of an object regardless of its status. The problem with labeling any golf swing as unorthodox is that the definition of that condition varies with time. What was once considered to be unorthodox may later be considered perfectly acceptable, and we’ve seen this happen over and over again in golf instruction.
Case No. 1
It was considered unorthodox when Harry Vardon moved his thumbs toward the top of the shaft and placed the little finger of his right hand over his left forefinger knuckle. The standard grip in his era featured both thumbs to the sides of the shaft. The club was held more in the palms of both hands and with all ten fingers, rather than more diagonally through the palm as in Vardon’s Grip. As Vardon began to win, however, his competitors copied his grip. What once was considered unorthodox became orthodox.
Case No. 2
Hogan and Nicklaus were paired together in the final round of the 1957 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. The dichotomy between their backswings couldn’t have been more evident. This was due to the way in which they utilized their right elbows in the backswing. Nicklaus allowed his right elbow to work up and away, pointing more outward at the top. Hogan’s right elbow was closer to his body and pointed more downward.
At the time, Hogan’s backswing was considered orthodox while Nicklaus’ swing was considered unorthodox. As Hogan faded from the winner’s circle and Nicklaus began to emerge, what was once thought to be unorthodox later came to be considered orthodox.
There are some swings that most observers would agree are both unorthodox and ugly. For example, most observers would say that Jim Furyk’s swing is not pretty — they might even go so far as to categorize it as ugly. This is despite the face that Furyk has had an outstanding career and has a U.S. Open victory to his credit. What is it that observers find so offense in his swing? The answer is the differential in planes between the backswing and the downswing, or what might be referred to as a “loop” in his swing.
In Furyk’s case, the club is taken well outside what might be considered the traditional backswing plane. Then it is looped well to the inside and back into position on the downswing. This is is a perfectly acceptable way to play golf, which is evidenced by the size of his bank account and the number of trophies on his mantle. As you might surmise, because of his golf swing, Furyk has not been asked to write any full-swing instruction books.
The problem is that, in the eyes of the observer, the combination of the two distinctly different planes gives a disjoined appearance to the swing. Does it follow then that the variance in the backswing and downswing is the primary factor in determining if a swing qualifies as being ugly? The problem with reaching that conclusion is that it doesn’t hold up to comparison with other players who employ a similar pattern… beginning with Freddy Couples. He begins his swing by lifting his arms well outside the traditional plane line. With a delayed turn of his torso, he then brings the club back into a more traditional plane at the top.
In the case of both Couples and Furyk, their backswings operate well outside the traditional plane line with both players “looping” the club back into position prior to impact. And yet Couples’ swing is universally admired, while Furyk’s swing is in some quarters ridiculed. This begs the question of why Couples’ “looping” swing motion is considered more acceptable than Furyk’s. The answer to that question is two-fold.
- Furyk’s loop is created ostensibly by a change in plane with the arms and the hands, giving the swing a frenetic appearance.
- Couples’ loop is created with a graceful turn of his body with the arms following in perfect harmony.
And so, when taking the swings of Couples and other “loopers” into consideration, it would seem that the dramatic change in plane between the backswing and the downswing in and of itself does not warrant the classification of ugly.
Author Footnote: A point worth considering as part of this discussion is that there have been other accomplished players throughout the history of the game whose backswings have operated on the same principles as Couples. This would include perennial Champion’s Tour winners Kenny Perry, and earlier Jay Haas, whose swings were generally admired despite their unorthodox approach to the backswing.
What does this all mean? First, while a loop in the golf swing may be unorthodox, is not necessary considered ugly provided that the club is routed into plane with the turn of the body rather than just the arms and the hands. Second, as stated earlier, the definition of unorthodox can and does change depending on the era. And third, an unorthodox swing is not necessarily ugly. The two classifications are very different.
As you evaluate golf swings, remember this adage; an unorthodox swing is not necessarily ugly, but an ugly swing is always unorthodox.
TG2: Should Tiger Woods play in The Masters without a driver?
Tiger Woods’ No. 1 concern heading into the Masters is the driver, according to Notah Begay. Equipment expert Brian Knudson and Editor Andrew Tursky argue whether Tiger should even use a driver during the Masters. Also, they discuss Rory’s new prototype putter and how it was made, and they talk about a new shaft company called “LA Golf Shafts.”
Listen to the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes!
For more info on the topics, check out the links below.
- Rory’s putter: www.golfwrx.com/503976/rory-mcilr…rmade-soto-proto/
- Tiger’s driver: www.golfwrx.com/503940/tiger-wood…irms-notah-begay/
- LA Golf Shafts: www.golfwrx.com/503818/la-golf-pa…s-la-golf-shafts/
Book Review: The Life and Times of Donald Ross
The Life and Times of Donald Ross is a successful golf history, in that it holds one’s attention, regardless of one’s level of enthusiasm or interest for the subject. It can hardly avoid doing so, as it traces the life of a man who lived through both world wars, emigrated from the old country to the new, and championed a sport that grew from infancy to maturity in the USA, during his earthly run. The loss of two wives to uncontrollable circumstances, the raising of a child essentially on his own, and the commitment to the growth of golf as an industry add to the complexity of the life of Donald J. Ross Jr. Within the cover of this tome, through words and images, the life and times of the man are communicated in fine fashion.
The book was published in 2016, by Chris Buie of Southern Pines, North Carolina. Buie is not a professional writer in the traditional sense. He does not solicit contracts for books, but instead, writes from a place of passion and enthusiasm. This is not to say that he is not a writer of professional quality. Instead, it isolates him among those who turn out high-level prose, scholarly research, with attention-holding results.
Before I opened the book, it was the cover that held my attention for much longer than a single, fleeting moment. The solitary figure, staring out across the ocean. Was he gazing toward the Americas, or toward his birthplace, in Scotland? And that blend of blue shades, like something out of Picasso’s 1901-1904 period of monochromatic azures, proved to be equal parts calming and evocative. Those years, by the way, correlate with the 29th to the 32nd years of Ross’ life. During that period, Ross lost a brother (John) to injuries suffered in the Boer War, and married his first wife, Janet. With care like that for the cover art, what marvelous research awaited within the binding?
After a number of readings, I’m uncertain as to the greater value of the words or the pictures. Perhaps it’s the codependency of one on the other that leads to the success of the effort. The book is the culmination of 5 months of exhaustive research, followed by 7 months of intense writing, on Buie’s part. The author made up his mind to match as many images as possible with his descriptors, so as to create both visual and lexical collections to stand time’s test. Maps, paintings, photos, newspaper clippings, postcards, etchings and course routes were collected and reproduced within the covers. Throughout the process, so much of Ross’s life and craft, previously unrecognized in publication, were revealed to Buie. Ross’s ability to make the unnatural look natural when necessary, is hardly equaled in the annals of golf course architecture. According to Buie,
Growing up all I’d heard was natural. Certainly he incorporated as much of the existing terrain and environment as possible. But given how much other work went into the courses, it would be more accurate to say his courses were naturalistic.
Buie also scrapes away at the misplaced notion that Ross was a one-dimensional golf course architect. After all, what else did Shakespeare do besides write plays and sonnets? Well, Ross did so much more, in addition to building some of the world’s great member and tournament golf courses, shaping the Pinehurst Resort experience, and running an in-town hotel in the process. Again, Buie comments,
His greatest contribution was the role he played in the overall establishment of the game in the United States. He was involved in every aspect (caddymaster, greenkeeper, teacher, player, mentor, tournaments, clubmaking, management, etc). The theme that went through his efforts was that he was adamant all be done “the right way”. Given the breadth and enduring nature of his efforts I don’t think anyone else did more to establish the game in America. That makes him the “Grand Old Man of the American Game” – not just a prolific architect.
What was it about Ross, that separated him from the many compatriots who journeyed from Scotland to the USA? They were content to compete and run golf clubs, but Ross sought so much more. His early years involved much successful competition, including top-10 finishes in the US Open. He was also a competent instructor, manifested in the ability of his students to learn both the swing and its competitive execution. And yet, Pinehurst is so different from any other place in the Americas. And so much of what it is, is due to the influence of Donald Ross.
In a nod to the accepted round of golf across the planet, the book contains 18 chapters, including the appendices. At locomotive pace, the mode of transportation utilized by Ross to traverse the lower 48 of the USA and Canada, the reader gathers a proper awareness of the great man’s living arc. Beginning with the hike from the train station in Boston to the Oakley Country Club, the emigration of the Scotsman from the highlands of Caledonia to the next hemisphere was a fairly simple affair, with unexpected, poignant, and far-reaching consequences. Donald J. Ross, jr., would complete the shaping of american golf that was assisted (but never controlled) by architectural peers. Men like Walter Travis, Albert Tillinghast, Charles Blair Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie and Tom Bendelow would build courses of eternal worth, but none would shape in the far-reaching manner of Ross.
It’s tempting to make a larger portion of this story about Buie, but he wouldn’t have it so. A Pinehurst native, Buie’s blend of reverence and understanding of his home region are evident and undeniable. One almost thinks that a similar history might have been written about any number of characters charged with the stewardship of the Sandhills region of North Carolina. Fortunately for aficionados of golf and its course architecture, Buie is a golfer, and so we have this tome.
Donald J. Ross, jr. was a man of principle, a man of faith, a man of belief. When those beliefs came into conflict with each other, which they seldom did, he had an instinct for elevating one over the other. No other place is this more evident that in his routing of the Sagamore course in Lake George, in the Adirondack mountains of New York state. Faced with the conundrum of how to begin the course, his daughter remembers the sage words of the father. Despite contradicting his belief that a course should never begin in the direction of the rising sun, Ross commented I can’t start it anywhere but looking out at that lake and those mountains. Indeed, Sagamore would be a poorer place for an alternate opening, and this review would have less of a way to reach its end.
My recommendation: read the book.
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