GREENSBORO, Ga. — Golf holes the size of pizzas. Soccer balls on the back nine. A mulligan on every hole.
These are some of the measures — some would say gimmicks — that golf courses across the country have experimented with to stop people from quitting the game.
Golf has always reveled in its standards and rich tradition. But increasingly a victim of its own image and hidebound ways, golf has lost five million players in the past decade, according to the National Golf Foundation, with 20 percent of the 25 million golfers apt to quit in the next few years.
People younger than 35 have especially spurned the game, saying it takes too long to play, is too difficult to learn and has too many tiresome rules.
Many of golf’s leaders are so convinced the sport is in danger of following the baby boomer generation into the grave that an internal rebellion has led to alternative forms of golf with new equipment, new rules and radical changes to courses. The goal is to alter the game’s reputation in order to recruit lapsed golfers and a younger demographic.
“We’ve got to stop scaring people away from golf by telling them that there is only one way to play the game and it includes these specific guidelines,” said Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America, who also owns a large Indiana golf complex. “We’ve got to offer more forms of golf for people to try. We have to do something to get them into the fold, and then maybe they’ll have this idea it’s supposed to be fun.”
Among the unconventional types of golf is an entry-level version in which the holes are 15 inches wide, about four times the width of a standard hole.
A 15-inch-hole event was held at the Reynolds Plantation resort Monday. It featured top professional golfers Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose, the defending U.S. Open champion.
“A 15-inch hole could help junior golfers, beginning golfers and older golfers score better, play faster and like golf more,” said Garcia, who shot a 6-under-par 30 for nine holes in the exhibition.
Rose said he was planning to use an expanded hole to reintroduce the game to his 5-year-old son, who rejected the game recently after he had tired of failing at it.
“Lately, I’ve been having a hard time getting him to pick up a club,” Rose said.
Another alternative is foot golf, in which players kick a soccer ball from the tee to an oversize hole, counting their kicks. Other changes relax the rules and allow do-over shots, or mulligans, once a hole; teeing up the ball for each shot; and throwing a ball out of a sand bunker once or twice a round.
Still other advocates of change have focused on adapting to the busy schedules of parents and families. In recent years, golf courses have encouraged people to think of golf in six-hole or nine-hole increments. Soon, about 30 golf courses across the country will become test cases for a system of punch-in-punch-out time clocks that assess a fee by the minutes spent playing or practicing rather than by 18- or nine-hole rounds.
The initiatives are being driven by disparate entities within the game, including the venerable PGA of America, which represents more than 27,000 golf professionals. The organization has created an eclectic, 10-person task force to foster nontraditional pathways to golf. The task force has some golf insiders, but it also includes Arlen Kantarian, who led U.S. tennis’ successful effort to reverse a decline in participation, and Olympic ski champion Bode Miller, whose sport was revived by better equipment and cultural changes that tempered skiing’s reputation for stodgy elitism.
“Little League baseball is an example of how to introduce someone to a game with different equipment than the sophisticated players use,” Kantarian said. “We should also be thinking about unconventional golf on school fields or backyards. That might be the best way for kids and beginners to learn anyway.”
Miller said he wanted to lift the rules governing the use of juiced golf clubs or golf balls.
“A nonconforming club or ball does not corrupt the game,” Miller said. “Not if it encourages people to try a very intimidating game. That will be beneficial to golf for 50 years.”
Golf still ranks among the nation’s top 10 recreational sports activities, and given its traditions, it is no surprise that not everyone agrees with the burgeoning alternative movement.
“I don’t want to rig the game and cheapen it,” said Curtis Strange, a two-time U.S. Open champion and an analyst for ESPN. “I don’t like any of that stuff. And it’s not going to happen either. It’s all talk.”
Now pros and hackers alike are under the same umbrella regarding rules of the game and equipment. Proponents of unconventional golf are proposing two games — or 10 or 20. That is something the U.S. Golf Association, golf’s governing body, has long avoided.
“We think the charm of the game is a single set of rules,” said Thomas J. O’Toole Jr., the USGA president. “But we applaud strategic thinking that brings people to golf. We shouldn’t be narrow-minded.”
O’Toole said alternative ideas were “not golf as we know it,” but he said he believed they were a way for people “to embrace the game so they would ultimately come play golf.”
Some golf insiders, like Mark King, chief executive of TaylorMade-adidas Golf, have lost patience with the glacial pace of change. King’s company created a website, HackGolf.org, to generate ideas about how to make golf more fun for everyone.
“We needed to spark a revolution, and right now we have 1,500 legitimate ideas — everything from ‘serve free beer’ to practical things that will actually work,” said King, who is also on the PGA task force. “The next step will be to prototype real-world experiments and see what happens.”
An enthusiastic supporter of the 15-inch hole, King installed oversize holes at a country club near his company’s Southern California headquarters and found that they reduced the length of an 18-hole round to three and a half hours, about an hour less than typical. Most golfers saw a 10-stroke improvement in their scores.
In the next month, TaylorMade-adidas Golf will subsidize the installation of 15-inch holes at about 100 golf courses so the results can be assessed. (A special hole-cutting device costs about $250.) The bigger holes might be especially appropriate for corporate and charity golf outings, which often attract novice golfers.
“No one is trying to drive away the many millions of people who play traditional golf,” King said. “But what harm is there in offering an alternative? In five years I bet that 90 percent of golf facilities are having events with the 15-inch hole.”
Former LPGA star Dottie Pepper, one of two women on the PGA task force, said she hoped that the coming changes would soften golf’s image enough that it would be more inclusive to women, who are also quitting the game.
“Women feel isolated on the golf course, so we have to encourage them to make it a group thing,” Pepper said. “Build a social experience. That’s what men do.”
The budding rebellion also includes changes to gear and equipment. Polara, a nonconforming golf ball engineered to neither slice nor hook, was introduced in 2011 and is sold in 800 retail locations nationwide and online, according to the company’s founder, Dave Felker. The company also helped create the U.S. Recreational Golf Association, whose rules and ethos represented what Felker called “regular golfers,” as opposed to those who play competitively.
Some purists may worry that the peaceful, fundamental golf experience will be replaced by hordes in tank tops feverishly speeding around the links, throwing the ball from hole to hole and booting soccer balls through the bunkers.
“That’s the kind of mentality that has held the sport back for 20 years,” said Bishop, the PGA of America president. “I went to a golf club’s 125th anniversary dinner not long ago, and the overwhelming majority of the people in the room were over 55. We should be asking, ‘On that club’s 150th anniversary, who’s going to attend?’”