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January 2018

Escaping the Echo Chamber

escapingtheechochamber.jpgBy Trent Bouts

Unbound by tradition, outsiders are bringing fresh perspectives to industries often set in their own ways

In 2006, Beau Welling, the golf course designer who cut his teeth under Tom Fazio and would later help Tiger Woods craft Bluejack National, fielded an unexpected call. On the other end of the line was a woman introducing herself as Georgia West, recently elected president of the United States Curling Association. Yes, that game on ice with brooms and rounded rocks with handles.

West wanted Welling to serve on her board, or, more accurately, she was inviting him at the behest of the U.S. Olympic Committee. In its view, if curling was to grow, it was time for the sport to get out of its own niche—or navel—and find some fresh ideas and energy. The committee didn’t specify a candidate, but West quickly settled on Welling.
Until a few weeks earlier, Welling, who grew up and still lives in Greenville, South Carolina—average annual temperature, 70 degrees—had never been closer to curling than his TV set, let alone set foot on the playing surface known as a “sheet.” Sporadically, he’d been curious, since stumbling on the sport while channel surfing from his couch as a teenager.

During telecasts of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2002, Welling’s interest grew closer to fascination. So, soon after soaking in the Torino games in 2006, he boarded a plane to tiny Bemidji, Minnesota, to watch the U.S. National Championships. By the time he arrived, he was already something of a celebrity to a curling community equally fascinated that a Southerner was flying 1,000 miles into the teeth of a raging winter to watch them compete.

Over the next nine days—they naturally wouldn’t let him leave—curling came to know Welling as more than a some novelty interloper. He’s intelligent, articulate and an expansive thinker, as you might expect of someone with an Ivy League physics degree and an international business degree, who also studied landscape architecture, not to mention Irish drama at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. His golf contacts include identities from a vast range of business and political backgrounds, including U.S. presidents.

In that context, for a sport in need of an outside eye, Welling’s arrival, practically out of the ether, was the stuff of divine intervention. “His perspectives have caused us all to be better,” says Rick Patzke, U.S. Curling’s chief executive officer. “Beau has caused the entire board to think bigger picture. We’re not still without challenges. But we’re definitely light-years ahead of where we were 10 years ago.”

Could golf do with a Beau Welling? Someone or some group unbound by tradition or emotional ties to the game, some entity so new to it all that it can analyze symptoms clinically and prescribe curatives not previously considered?

Some smart minds believe such a perspective is critical, yet often overwhelmed in the digital age, which has accelerated a phenomenon known variously as bubble think or the echo chamber. The contention, supported by some studies, is that unless we expose ourselves to a range of opinions, we become more polarized, more set in our ways and less able to learn and discover.

A couple of years after Beau Welling first sat in his VIP seat—a barstool with his name taped to it—overlooking the ice in Bemidji, James Surowiecki published “The Wisdom of Crowds.” Broadly, Surowiecki contends that in the right environment, larger groups with diverse experience make better decisions than a few like minds. He gives an example where a group of scientists grappling with an intractable problem only arrives at a solution after a schoolteacher is introduced to the conversation and begins asking questions.

The roadblock occurs when members of a crowd are so conscious of the opinions of others that their thinking begins to emulate and ultimately conform to the group. It’s why terms like “disruptive thinking” emerged in the lexicon of 21st century business, the notion being that real advancement can only come through real change. Conversely, more of the same begets more of the same.

It was 2000 when the golf industry launched Golf 20/20, a “collaboration designed to galvanize the industry around strategic initiatives and grassroots activation to ensure the future vitality of the game of golf.” The tech bubble burst around the same time, then the Great Recession followed. Both, quite rightly, have worn their share of blame for golf’s initial downturn and subsequent sluggish recovery.

But nearly 20 years on, the “future vitality of the game of golf” is anything but assured, at least in any context comparable to the peak of the early 2000s. The bloodletting may be over, but courses and golfers continue to seep from the industry’s wounds.

In terms of initiatives to tackle the decline, a lot has been thrown against the wall, unfortunately with much of it sliding to the floor. Adherents to Surowiecki’s view wouldn’t be surprised. Golf 20/20’s board of directors consists entirely of golf industry people. The same is almost true of a 50-plus member advisory board. Ken May of Topgolf, the indoor virtual reality game, is an exception, but he retired as the company’s CEO in the fall.

A decade ago in this magazine, Steve Lesnik, co-founder and chairman of KemperSports, made a statement that could now be seen as prophetic. “Expecting rapid change or any quantum leap in thinking—for better or worse—may be unrealistic,” Lesnik said at the time. “This is a game, a sport and an industry that prides itself on tradition. And that may be one of the problems with the industry. That it’s so bound in tradition that it does not adapt as quickly as some other recreational industries.”

Is there really no room, nor appetite, for disruptive thinkers? Is the industry, as Lesnik intimated, so insular that it can’t see, as others have learned to their enrichment, that party crashers sometimes turn out to be white knights? Certainly, history is littered with examples of reluctance to accept new truths. They threw Galileo in jail, remember.

One of the few who manage to occupy anything like the territory, a kind of purgatory, between party crasher and white knight is James Koppenhaver, president and founder of Pellucid Golf, which bills itself as a “golf industry thought leader for key issue identification, intelligent analysis and actionable insight.” Koppenhaver, by his own admission, has been labeled an “industry contrarian,” often pouring cold water—what he sees as cold hard facts and data—on a positive message, or spin, from groups like the National Golf Foundation.

It’s that very willingness to take an opposing view that’s valuable, Surowiecki suggests, and that attracts people like turfgrass scientist Dr. Frank Rossi, an associate professor at Cornell University. Rossi also hosts a TurfNet Radio Network podcast. On a recent show, he explained that he likes hearing from Koppenhaver because he so readily takes “a contrary view to what most people would consider conventional wisdom.” “I find, as a scientist, that’s when the best discussions can occur, when you’re stretching our thinking a little bit,” Rossi says.

Koppenhaver has long advocated industry-backed research to identify the programs that work and those that fail to generate golfers and rounds. “From that we can create a blueprint for success,” he says. Part of the problem, he says, is that the people with the most skin in the game, i.e. golf course owners, are the least equipped, and perhaps the least inclined, to make their facilities guinea pigs on behalf of the industry.

As National Golf Course Owners Association president Rock Lucas says, “Other than the church, golf course owners are the most conservative group in the country.” Koppenhaver concurs: “People in the golf industry, as a general rule, aren’t creative thinkers. They’re operational people by nature, they’re not risk-takers, and we lag, as an industry, behind a lot of the advances and technology that have been employed in other industries for 10 or 15 years.”

While golf course owners may be risk-averse, both Lucas and Koppenhaver agree it’s not just a matter of DNA. “In fairness, part of it is because they’ve been living on such a thin margin for the past decade. Some are there because of the economics,” Koppenhaver says. Or as Lucas puts it, succinctly, “We can’t afford to make a mistake.”

On the flipside, Koppenhaver points out, “The people who have the least economic stake in the industry are the ones who have the cash. The USGA could fix this problem tomorrow if it was so inclined to. I know that’s a really bold and outrageous statement. But if it were to make a commitment over several years to understand and diagnose the problem, then fund programs in a competitive environment that deliver results against the objectives, you could make the whole thing go away and be fixed for a million bucks. To the USGA, it wouldn’t even miss it.”

Someone who agrees with that principle, if not necessarily the players involved, is Beau Welling.

“Someone needs to say, ‘Let’s do this, and track the data and let’s draw conclusions about it,” he says. “I’ve always felt like what people do a lot of is talk, rather than pursue a particular initiative. And the people who are trying to be the ones talking about it in a collective sense are the ones who always have. It’s almost self-replicating by nature.” The echo chamber.

Welling believes golf is ripe for something “game-changing,” such as has taken place in rugby and cricket, where short-forms of both games have proven widely popular. Albeit on a smaller scale, he was the catalyst for something similarly radical in curling, upending decades of tradition to take the sport’s biggest events—the national championships and Olympic trials—outside traditional curling centers.

“It was somewhat controversial,” he says, but in 2009 the nationals were held in Denver, Colorado. In 2016, they were in Jacksonville, Florida. The sport has grown significantly since Welling stepped into whipping snow in 2002. “We had less than 10,000 members and maybe 120 curling clubs, mostly in the northern, cold weather states,” recalls USA Curling’s Patzke. “Now we have more than 21,000 members and about 180 clubs across 44 states. There will be about 300 hours of curling on television in 2018. We used to be happy with three!”

Koppenhaver says the extended duration of golf’s struggles has led to an informal split. One camp is open to outside perspectives. “They don’t care where the answers come from,” he says. “They don’t make the distinction of whether they’re coming from the industry approved source.”

The other, larger camp, he says, remains “loyal to these voices that they think are looking out for their best interests.”

“The view is that we’ve grown up with these associations,” he adds. “They’re part of our history. They should understand our problems better than anybody else, so we’re going to stick with them through thick and thin, even though they have no economic stake in the operational side of the business.”

Sans any outright revolution, either in thinking or who speaks for the game, Koppenhaver, echoing Lesnik from a decade ago, expects solutions to come slowly. “What’s going to end up happening is the solution to our problem is going to come from grassroots efforts,” he posits. “One or two operators on their own, figuring out how to grow their customer base, figuring out innovative programming that appeals to millennials, figuring out how to deal with the time compression issue.”

Neighbors will adopt and adapt those programs and a ripple effect will play out. “The challenge, because we’re slow to use the technology that’s available, is until we get several thousand courses learning from each other, it’s not going to make a dent in the national numbers,” he says.

Some others are not waiting to be invited for their input. Welling himself has a blog entry titled, “What Is Wrong With Golf In America: Part One,” in which he alleges that the costs of golf are getting closer to outweighing the benefits. He explains that golf has “a value proposition problem” and, moreover, “a modern culture problem.” “We will talk about that one in my next entry,” he writes. “Get ready for some big ideas!”

In the meantime, USA Curling is preparing to nominate Welling to the executive board of the World Curling Federation. He marched as team leader of the U.S. Women’s team at the 2010 world championships and traveled to Sochi, Russia, with an ambassadorial role in the 2014 Winter Olympics. That’s a long way from his couch in Greenville.

Who would golf do best to call on if it was pushed to entertain an outside voice, someone from outside the echo chamber? It’s back in the Olympics, after all.

Trent Bouts is a South Carolina-based freelance writer and editor of Palmetto Golfer magazine.


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