Two weeks ago (the Monday after the Masters), TaylorMade and its CEO Mark King co-hosted an event, along with the PGA of America president Ted Bishop, to spread the word about the benefit to golf for courses to use 15-inch wide cups instead of the regulation 4 1/4-inches. This aberration from the “normal” game we’ve grown up with has been dubbed “Hack Golf,” with its target audience geared toward beginners and juniors.
King and Bishop are the leaders spearheading bold initiatives to grow the game, especially with the unfortunate fate of the numbers regarding the state of the game. National Golf Association studies claim golf has lost five million players in the last decade, not to mention 20% of the existing 25 million golfers prone to quit in the next several years.
Something has to be done, said the Powers-That-Be.
“It is clear our game needs something to recapture the incredible growth and momentum we were experiencing a decade ago,” said Mark King, CEO of TaylorMade-adidas Golf. “Whether it is this 15-inch-cup concept or an idea that comes in from outside the industry, we need to spark a revolution that will bring new participants to the game.”
King and Bishop think one of the answers is Hack Golf, which hopes to promote families playing the game together. 15-inch holes, though–with shorter flagsticks and sand at the bottom of the cup, no less? The diehard purists don’t like that. They aren’t fans of aberrations to the holy game.
“When you see the numbers, it makes you worry because it’s your game and you want to make it to be out there as much as possible and when you see those numbers it’s not a nice feeling,” said Sergio Garcia, a TaylorMade-adidas ambassador who attended the event, along with fellow Tour pro Justin Rose. “You’ve got to try to figure out ways to make sure the game stays strong. For me, this definitely is something that can help do that.”
I’ll admit, I was skeptical of the 15-inch hole idea. Before I tried it that day, I thought it was kind of silly. I mean, why would I want to play with a clown hole? That’s not golf, to me. That would take away part of the fun, the challenge. It’s a little like bowling with bumpers. (That’s for losers!) Oh, that’s what beginners and kids often play.
Hack Golf isn’t aimed at better golfers or 20 and lower handicaps.
“Call it whatever you want, but we’ve got to get past this notion that unless you’re playing nine or 18 holes, with 4¼-inch holes, it’s not golf,” Bishop said. “This is a form of the sport, just like playing H-O-R-S-E on the backyard hoop is a form of basketball.”
That’s how I felt after playing nine holes of Hack Golf. By the way, I was paired that morning at Reynolds Plantation’s Oconee Course with Sergio Garcia. He was also my cart driver. More about that later.
The 15-inch holes aren’t meant to replace the game as we know it — it’s just supposed to be an alternative, kind of like playing in a scramble or shamble or other fun team variation to golf’s “normal” format.
“We’re not trying to recreate the game,” Bishop said. “We’re not saying we need to phase out 4 and a quarter inch holes. But at the same time, I think there are some people who play the game for recreational purposes, they can care less. If they’re having a good time playing 15-inch holes, they may never want to see a four and a quarter inch hole again. It’s a choice.”
Bishop plans to maintain 15-inch and regular holes at the par-3 course in his club in Indiana. He also intends to include the large bucket holes on one of the nines on the championship course to encourage family play. Meanwhile, King’s club in California is scheduling four tournaments with 15-inch cups.
“Traditionally, we’ve been a sport that has driven people out of the game,” Bishop said. “We need to start giving people choices.”
Will this work? Well, it certainly might for beginners and kids.
“A 15-inch hole could help junior golfers, beginning golfers and older golfers score better, play faster and like golf more,” said Sergio.
Justin Rose said he might use the larger holes to reintroduce golf to his five-year-old son, Leo, who swung a club all the time as a toddler, but lost interest as he got older when it became too difficult.
“Lately, I’ve been having a hard time getting him to pick up a club,” said Justin.
Personally, I just saw it as a different game to the real game. It was weird adjusting to the larger hole at the start. Even Sergio found so.
“It’s almost like it makes it harder because you think it’s supposed to be easy and you should make it, so you don’t concentrate as much,” said Sergio, laughing as walked off the 14th green.
It was confusing at first for me to figure out how to read the putt or where to aim at the massive can of a golf hole. I didn’t — and I don’t think I was alone — find a massive different in scoring because even with the gigantic holes, you still had to get the ball on the green and a putter in your hand. Oconee has many narrow, tree-lined fairways criss-crossed with water and a plethora of hazards and trouble on most of the holes.
I shot two-over 38, with two double-bogeys and two-birdies. I wasn’t happy with my play at all. But I probably would have shot 41 or 42 at worst with the normal holes. Which, again, isn’t that much of a discrepancy in strokes.
Even though the putting to the 15-inch hole was “easier” to a degree, it was still maddening as it was satisfying. The gimme-range is usually around 2 feet, but in Hack Golf, it extends to probably 15-20 feet. That said, if you miss a putt from within 20-25 feet, you feel utterly demoralized because, like a two-footer, you know you definitely should have made it. Then, every now and again, you made a 40-45 footer, which was fun, but you’d still remind yourself that the hole was so large that as long as you rammed it (play it 10-15 feet past speed-wise), you shouldn’t miss.
And if you were a pro, you expected to chip-in if you were just off the green. Sergio got off to a bit of a slow start and he had a few early chances to hole out chips, which he missed. In his first opportunity, he left his putter back in the cart because he was confident enough that he’d make a relatively straightforward chip from the green-side rough.
It curved around the edge of the large cup. Sergio fell to his knees, groaned and then jumped up with a big smile and in disbelief.
“I had three chances to chip in and didn’t,” said Sergio, who ended up shooting six-under 30. “So obviously I was quite disappointed.”
What was he like to play with? Well, he was incredibly nice and considerate and just to a pleasure to be around. He was nothing like people who don’t like him think he is — those are all misconceptions. I never had much interaction with him before I was paired with him in this Hack Golf exhibition (thanks, TaylorMade!), but I’d always heard he was actually a really great guy.
He tolerated and amused me by agreeing to take a selfie about two minutes after I hopped in the cart. He was upbeat and positive. Sergio lasered my number on every shot, repeatedly grabbed my putter from my bag on the cart and brought it to me on the green, offered me a granola bar when he was about to have a granola bar, etc.
He said he played with Bubba Watson the first two rounds at the Masters and the way the course set up for him was ridiculously perfect. Sergio said he himself isn’t a short hitter at all, but Bubba hits it to another level of far and on 13, he’d just airmail it over the trees on the left and cut the corner with ease. For Sergio, it wasn’t such a great week. He messed up a lot of people’s pools when he shot five-over and missed the cut. (But good news was he was well-rested for our round together!) He played better than he scored at the Masters, got a lot of bad breaks and sometimes his good shots even resulted in bogeys, but no big deal, he said.
I think most of us were dealing with Masters hangovers and our games were a little off that morning, but we also all managed to have fun and stay open-minded about the variation in format. (Hey, I don’t care how big the hole was, I got to play golf with Sergio — and share a cart, no less.)
He was encouraging even when I hit awful shots. Like, on the first drive, I usually drive it well or it’s the one part of my game I can rely on, but naturally, not that day. I popped up my opening tee shot, and Sergio said, “It’s okay, good miss.”
Then, on the reachable-in-two par-5 17th, I skulled my 3-wood as my second shot that was going for the green. I laughed. Sergio said, “That’s okay, that’s your number. Good layup.” It turned out to be 73 (yards) and I did hit it tight and even birdied the hole.
There were constantly cameramen (both video and still photographers) and production teams following us. There was one company that had the first three holes and then another that had the last three holes, and we were, of course, always accompanied by at least two photographers. I think they somehow missed my pureness, though.
Sergio had to go to another corporate responsibility on the 13th hole when we finished, so I hopped off the cart to get on another one to take me back. Before I left, Sergio quickly pulled out a Sharpie, signed his 6-under 30 ball and handed it to me. Which kind of threw me off, but was super nice of him. I guess it was just a little strange because that’s something he’d do in a pro-am, though that’s basically what I got to play in — a shorter version with larger holes edition of golf. (I’d love to play in a real pro-am at a PGA Tour or LPGA event sometime soon. Hint hint.) We played in about an hour and a half.
Here’s a photo of our group:
More videos of Sergio’s swing that day…
Sergio swings out of his shoes here:
(Associated Press/Paul Abell)