GolfBoards make golf a board sport

Zack Hall

Golf is not supposed to be an adventure sport.

Yet, here I am standing on the first fairway of Bend’s Tetherow Golf Club on a mild summer morning trying to learn to balance myself on a motorized board with nothing more than my feet (and the golf shoes on them) to guide the contraption. Seems like a strange thing to do for someone like me who loves golf’s traditions, chooses skis over a snowboard, is bewildered by the idea of a stand-up paddleboard, and views skateboarding as a guaranteed ticket to an emergency room.

It seems even stranger to do it on such a highly regarded golf course.

Midlife crisis, you ask?

No. I am on a GolfBoard, a hybrid golf cart and skateboard created by a fledgling company based in Bend (legendary surfer Laird Hamilton was among the design contributors). For the first time the GolfBoard company is ready to ship the newfangled machine in mass quantities to courses all around the country, and beyond.

Paul Hodge, the company’s president/CEO and a specialist in getting startup companies off the ground, says the advance in distribution is a big step forward for GolfBoard.

But more than that, he hopes that it will be an important occasion for golf. After all, Hodge, a 41-year-old who lives in Sisters, thinks the GolfBoard has the potential to grow the sport and help make golf cool again in a way Tiger Woods once did.

“We have actually been riding these boards around for a couple of years now, and just my experience, personally, I have probably introduced well over 100 people that would have never played golf otherwise,” Hodge says. “I truly believe this will attract new golfers and bring a younger audience, which will help grow the industry. I really do.”

Yes, that is a sales pitch, and a bold one at that. But judging by the four holes of golf at Tetherow I played on the GolfBoard, Hodge just might be right.

Golf is too slow to attract a younger generation, or so I hear.

Spend enough time around the game and you will eventually be told that golf takes too long to play, is too steeped in tradition, or is not cool enough to grab the attention of a smartphone-dependent, Twitter-addicted Millennial.

Golf treats Millennials, a generation roughly defined as those born between the early 1980s and 2000, like some mysterious, mythical being, such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

That is where GolfBoards step in, Hodge says.

“Millennials have limited time and short attention spans and they want to have fun,” says Hodge, adding that the generation grew up on board sports such as snowboarding and skateboarding.

“If they can play nine holes in an hour and have fun,” he says, “then they might play golf.”

Hodge is no avid golfer. In fact, he is relatively new to the game.

He does not keep score, and he seems to enjoy riding his GolfBoard more than playing golf. In other words, he is exactly the kind of golfer he hopes GolfBoards will attract.

So how do GolfBoards — ­which are now sold or leased in fleets to golf courses (GolfBoards cost about $4,000 each) and not to individuals — work?

First, the machines run on advanced lithium-ion batteries that charge in about an hour and can run for as many as 36 holes on a single charge. GolfBoards have all-wheel drive and traction control (perfect for my game), which is easier on the turf than a conventional golf cart, Hodge says.

And the boards have ample power, capable of a top speed of about 13 mph.

It takes only a few minutes to learn to ride a GolfBoard. The throttle is a trigger that the rider holds and is held in the rider’s hands.

The most difficult aspect is convincing yourself that you do not use the handlebar to steer. Instead, you guide the board using your feet, leaning from one side or another to angle the board, navigating it as much as you would a skateboard or a surfboard.

But the GolfBoard is remarkably stable once one gets the hang of it. And after four holes I was confident enough on the board that I was literally driving circles around my ball at nearly full throttle while waiting for my turn to hit on the par-5 ninth hole at Tetherow.

“The 60-, 70-year-old guys, they get on it and it is like the most exciting thing they’ve ever done in their life,” Hodge says. “And once they realize that it is actually easy, and they can actually do it, they’ll come to me and say, ‘Wow, I never actually thought I would do any board sports.’ ”

No doubt any rider would have to be in decent shape and have good balance, but the GolfBoard is by no means overwhelming.

What is remarkable to me is that I find myself having as much or more fun traveling from shot to shot as I do taking the shots themselves.

My reaction, apparently, is not so uncommon, a Tetherow caddie tells me in passing.

“I’ve caddied for groups with it, and the golf almost always becomes secondary,” the caddie says with a laugh. “I’ll try to get them an exact yardage and they say ‘Ah, just hand me a 7-iron.’ ”

For its part, Tetherow (at which Hodge is now a member) has acted as an incubator for the GolfBoard.

The course has had two GolfBoard prototypes available for rent this season for a $10 additional charge and recently added two more. In August, Tetherow is expected to be the first golf course in the country to have a full fleet of about 30 GolfBoards. (Aspen Lakes Golf Course in Sisters is also set to put some GolfBoards in service.)

Louis Bennett — Tetherow’s head pro and, at 29, himself a Millennial — cautions that GolfBoards themselves probably will not revolutionize golf like the motorized cart once did. But after seeing the positive reception from golfers this season, he is convinced that the boards can attract new players.

“Something like the GolfBoard can make the game cool again without changing the actual way the game is played, unlike FootGolf (a combination of soccer and golf) or 15-inch cups,” Bennett says. “Plus, it allows the younger generations the opportunity to play the game faster and multi-task while doing so — both high priorities when you look at those generations and the direction technology and society as a whole are moving.”

Bennett adds that GolfBoards are a particular fit in Bend, where “just riding a GolfBoard on a beautiful piece of property like Tetherow can be attractive without even taking a club out.”

I will suggest this: If you want to play a round in anonymity I do not recommend that you rent a GolfBoard.

Passers-by cannot help but stare when a golfer goes zooming past.

After all, the device looks so out of place on a golf course. Part skateboard, part golf cart, it is sure to pique the interest of anyone who sees it for the first time.

“It’s going to be much like the skiing and snowboarding analogy,” Hodge says. “Before snowboarding hit, the ski hills were all hurting. It was like golf, in decline and they were struggling. Snowboarding came on board, and it was like, ‘Whoa, what are these things?’ … But if you look at the end result, snowboarding saved the industry.”

That is certainly an ambitious goal.

But now that I have played a few holes on a GolfBoard, two things are clear to me.

First, the GolfBoard has that potential.

And second, I want a little more practice … and my game needs a little work, too.

— Reporter: 541-617-7868, zhall@bendbulletin.com.

Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin Bulletin golf reporter Zack Hall plays a few holes at Tetherow Golf Club while testing out the Golfboard on Thursday.
Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin Paul Hodge rides a Golfboard while playing a few holes at Tetherow Golf Club on Thursday.
ORIG 07/24/2014 Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin Bulletin golf reporter Zack Hall plays a few holes at Tetherow Golf Club while testing out the Golfboard on Thursday.
Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin Paul Hodge rides a Golfboard while playing a few holes at Tetherow Golf Club on Thursday.